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Julia Mörchen

Position: PhD Student

Research Group "Primate Behavioural Ecology"
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Department of Primate Behavior and Evolution
Deutscher Platz 6
D-04103 Leipzig Germany


University of Leipzig Faculty of Life Science
Institute of Biology
Behavioral Ecology Research Group
Talstrasse 33
D-04103 Leipzig Germany

e-mail: julia.moerchen@[>>> Please remove the text! <<<]uni-leipzig.de


Research interests
Curriculum Vitae

Research interests

Throughout human history migrants have been drivers of cultural change, contributing to the formation and diversity of local cultures by transmitting new skills and knowledge. Before the age of global connectedness, human cultural evolution critically depended on knowledge transmission during migration events, next to independent local invention and spread of variants. While social tolerance fosters mutual exchange of knowledge, and the likelihood of beneficial knowledge transfer with critical fitness value, xenophobic perceptions of unfamiliar individuals likely prevent cultural exchange. However, social learning between unfamiliar individuals can also entail costs, such as competition over resources, or the increased likelihood of harmful disease transmission. Accordingly, there is likely strong selective pressure on traits that allow individuals to balance the costs and benefits of associating and social learning from an unfamiliar individual.

In my Ph.D. project, I investigate the evolutionary roots of the underlying behavioral adaptions of migrants and locals to the consequences of migration, by using the highly socially tolerant Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the less tolerant Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) as model species. The two species differ in their evolved levels of social tolerance due to differences in the island’s forests` productivity. In both species, orangutan males disperse over large distances when reaching sexual maturity. Orangutans are known to be highly cultural great apes and are thus the ideal study system for this project.

The ultimate goal for this Ph.D. project is to examine how the exchange of beneficial knowledge between unfamiliar individuals can affect i.) their social learning behaviour ii.) the quality of their cultural repertories and thus likely their overall fitness. To assess potential links between social integration and fitness, we will iii.) link levels of social integration with measures of reproductive success including copulation frequencies, body condition, and ecological competence.

Curriculum Vitae

Current Position

07/2023 - PhD candidate, Development and Evolution of Cognition Research Group, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Konstanz, Germany 
01/2019 - 06/2023PhD candidate, Primate Behavioral Ecology Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig & Behavioral Ecology Research Group, Institute of Biology, University of Leipzig


10/2013-10/2016Master of Science in Biology, University of Hamburg, Germany, Supervised by: Prof. Carel van Schaik & Prof. Jutta Schneider, Final grade: excellent (GPA 1.19)
Master Thesis: “Learning from the immigrants: dispersing orangutan males as cultural vectors”
10/2014-03/2015Erasmus Mobility Student, University of Zurich, Switzerland
10/2010-10/2013Bachelor of Science in Biology, University of Hamburg, Supervised by: Prof. Julia Fischer & Prof. Jutta Schneider, Final grade: excellent (GPA 1.25)
Bachelor Thesis: “Effects of Ageing in social interest in Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) - testing predictions from socio-emotional selectivity theory” 
10/2008 – 09/2010Research student & Veterinary assistant, Zoo Palmitos Park, Canary Island, Study abroad Programme of Free University Berlin, during Bachelor Biology studies
09/2006 - 07/2008Matura, Friedrich- von- Spee School, Paderborn, Germany, Final grade: excellent (GPA 1.5)


01/2019 – 04/2021Project leader, SORAYA Orangutan project (www.suaq.org)
04/2017 - 12/2017 08/2018 - 12/2018
02/2014 - 12/2014
Freelance Biologist, Agency for Environment and Energy of the City of Hamburg, Department of Conservation
07/2017Freelance Biologist, “Hadabuan Hills” Expedition, North Sumatra, Indonesia
11/2017-12/2017 Scientific advisor GEO Magazine, for a reportage on Culture in Sumatran Orangutans, Indonesia
12/2017 Freelance Biologist, NGO “Lebensraum Regenwald e.V.” in collaboration with BOSF (Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation)
08/2011 – 09/2012Research Assistant, Zoological Institute & Museum, University of Hamburg
02/2012 – 03/2012Volunteer Research student, “Living Links to Human Evolution” Research Center, Edinburgh Zoo, University of St. Andrews, School of Psychology, United Kingdom
04/2011 – 08/2011Research assistant, Bio Center Klein Flottbek, University of Hamburg, Germany, Course “Biodiversity of plants”, Supervised: Dr. Barbara Rudolph
05/2010 – 09/2010News Researcher, NDR, Hamburg Germany
10/2009 – 04/2010Research student & Veterinary assistant, Zoo Palmitos Park, Canary Island, Study abroad Programme of Free University Berlin


12/2020 – 05/2022Supervision: M.Sc. Thesis, Natascha Riedel, “Measuring ecological competence in immigrant male orangutans”, University of Leipzig
09/2019 – 11/2021Supervision: M.Sc. Thesis, Frances Luhn, “Peering behaviour in dispersing orangutan males on Sumatra and Borneo”, University of Leipzig
06/2019 – 03/2021Co-Supervision: M.Sc. Thesis, Jacinthe Grima, “Description of a newly observed food-associated sound in a wild Sumatran orangutan population (Pongo abelii): a cultural innovation?”, Stockholm University
Organization and Supervision of “Primate Conservation”, Modul BIO-11-207, University Leipzig
12/2022 – 01/2023
12/2021 – 01/2022
12/2020 – 01/2021
Co-Supervision, Practical course “Primate Behavioural Ecology”, Modul BIO-11-212, University Leipzig
01/2023 – 02/2023
01/2022 – 02/2022
Co-Supervision, Day 14 “Verhaltensökologie” Modul 11-BIO-0101, University Leipzig


Mörchen, J., Luhn, F., Wassmer, O., Kunz, J. A., Kulik, L., van Noordwijk, M., Rianti, P., Rahmaeti, T., Atmoko, S. S. U., Widdig, A. ǂ., & Schuppli, C. (2024). Orangutan males make increased use of social learning opportunities, when resource availability is high. iScience, 27(2): 108940.
Open Access    DOI    BibTeX   Endnote   

Mörchen, J., Luhn, F., Wassmer, O., Kunz, J., Kulik, L., van Noordwijk, M., van Schaik, C., Rianti, P., Atmoko, S. S. U., Widdig, A. ǂ., & Schuppli, C. ǂ. (2023). Migrant orangutan males use social learning to adapt to new habitat after dispersal. Frontiers Ecology And Evolution, 11.
Open Access    DOI    BibTeX   Endnote   

Ehmann, B., van Schaik, C. P., Ashbury, A. M., Mörchen, J., Musdarlia, H., Utami Atmoko, S., van Noordwijk, M. A., & Schuppli, C. (2021). Immature wild orangutans acquire relevant ecological knowledge through sex-specific attentional biases during social learning. PLoS Biology, 19: e3001173.
Open Access    DOI    BibTeX   Endnote   

Gruber, T., Luncz, L. V., Mörchen, J., Schuppli, C., Kendal, R. L., & Hockings, K. (2019). Cultural change in animals: A flexible behavioural adaptation to human disturbance. Palgrave Communications, 5: 9.
Open Access    DOI    BibTeX   Endnote   

Meeting Abstracts

Mörchen, J., van Noordwijk, M.A. & van Schaik, C.P. (2017). “Learning from the immigrants: dispersing orangutan males as cultural vectors”, EFP conference, University of Strasbourg, France, Invited culture symposium talk.

Mörchen, J., van Noordwijk, M.A. & van Schaik, C.P. (2017). “Learning from the immigrants: dispersing orangutan males as cultural vectors”, GFP conference, University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Brandão, S.N. & Mörchen, J. (2012). “Small animals for understanding big biodiversity questions - A morphometric study for species concept within Southern Ocean Ostracods”, From Knowledge to Action Conference, International Polar Year, Montreal, Canada.