Dorothy Cheney (scientist)

Dorothy Cheney
Born (1950-08-24)August 24, 1950
Died November 9, 2018(2018-11-09) (aged 68)
Nationality American
Title Professor of Biology
Spouse(s) Robert Seyfarth
Academic background
Education Wellesley College
Alma mater Cambridge University
Doctoral advisor Robert Hinde
Academic work
Discipline Biology
Sub-discipline Primatology
Institutions University of Pennsylvania

Dorothy Leavitt Cheney (August 24, 1950 – November 9, 2018) was an American scientist who studied the social behavior, communication, and cognition of wild primates in their natural habitat. She was Professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of both the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Background and education

Dorothy Leavitt Cheney was born August 24, 1950 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was an economist and U.S. Foreign Service officer. From 1964 to 1968 she attended Abbot Academy. In 1972 she graduated from Wellesley College, where she majored in Political Science and was a Durant Scholar. She married Robert Seyfarth in 1971 and in 1972 they initiated a joint research project on wild baboons in the Mt. Zebra National Park, South Africa. Following this field research, she became a doctoral student under the supervision of Robert Hinde, at Cambridge University. She received her PhD in 1977. Cheney died of breast cancer on November 9, 2018, at her home in Devon, Pennsylvania.[1]


After Cambridge, Cheney (along with her husband) joined the laboratory of Peter Marler at Rockefeller University, where she held a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship and later became an Assistant Professor. In 1981, Cheney and Seyfarth became Assistant Professors in the Department of Anthropology at UCLA. In 1985 they moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where Cheney was a member of the Anthropology Department from 1985 to 1991 and the Biology Department from 1991 until her retirement in 2016.

Cheney was elected Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1983),[2] the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1995),[3] the Animal Behavior Society (1997),[4] the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (1999),[5] and was elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2015.[6] The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences awarded its 2010 Cozzarelli Prize, for the best article in the area of Behavioral and Social Sciences, to a paper about baboon collaboration coauthored by Cheney and Seyfarth.[7]

Cheney received a Biology Department teaching award (2009),[8] the Distinguished Animal Behaviorist Award from the Animal Behavior Society (2016),[9] the Distinguished Primatologist Award from the American Society of Primatologists (2016),[10] an honorary doctorate from the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland (2013), and the Distinguished Alumni Award from Phillips Andover Academy (2017).


In 1973 and 1974, Cheney and Seyfarth studied the social behavior of baboons in the Mt. Zebra National Park, South Africa. Cheney's research focused on the development of juveniles and subadults of both sexes. In 1977, as post-doctoral fellows working with Peter Marler, they began an 11-year study of behavior, communication, and cognition among vervet monkeys in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. They developed field “playback” experiments to study the information that listeners acquire when they hear a vocalization – particularly vervet monkey alarm calls – and showed how such experiments can be used to test hypotheses about the monkeys’ knowledge of each other's social relationships. Their work is described in the book How Monkeys See the World (Cheney & Seyfarth 1990, University of Chicago Press).[11]

Between 1985 and 1992, working jointly with their post-doctoral colleague Michael Owren, Cheney and Seyfarth carried out cross-fostering experiments on rhesus and Japanese macaques at the California National Primate Research Center (UC Davis). They tested whether infant and juvenile primates can modify their use of vocalizations depending on the social environment. Results revealed striking differences in the development of call production (largely fixed), usage of calls in the appropriate context (more flexible), and responses to the calls of others (highly modifiable).

Starting in 1992, Cheney and Seyfarth carried out a 16-year study of communication and social behavior among baboons in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. There, they and their colleagues continued their experimental studies of social cognition, showing that monkeys have a sophisticated understanding of each other's dominance ranks and social relationships. They also used non-invasive techniques to study the factors that contribute to stress and its alleviation under natural conditions.[12] This work is described in their book Baboon Metaphysics (Cheney & Seyfarth, 2007, University of Chicago Press).[13] Since 2005, research conducted jointly with Joan Silk has shown that, as in humans, individuals who establish close, stable bonds with others experience increased fitness in the form of greater longevity and offspring survival. Individuals with close social bonds also experience reduced stress levels. These results suggest that natural selection has favored individuals who have both the skill and the motivation to form strategic social bonds, and that the evolutionary antecedents of human cooperation can be found even in species without language or culture.[5]

Representative publications

  • Cheney, D.L. 1978. Interactions of immature male and female baboons with adult females. Animal Behaviour 26, 389-408.
  • Seyfarth, R.M., Cheney, D.L. & Marler, P. 1980. Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: Evidence for predator classification and semantic communication. Science 210, 801-803.
  • Cheney, D.L. & Seyfarth, R.M. 1990. How Monkeys See the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226102467.
  • Owren, M.J., Dieter, J.A., Seyfarth, R.M. & Cheney, D.L. 1993. Vocalizations of rhesus (Macaca mulatta) and Japanese (Macaca fuscata) macaques cross-fostered between species show evidence of only limited modification. Developmental Psychobiology 26, 389-406.
  • Cheney, D.L. & Seyfarth, R.M. 1999.Recognition of other individuals’ social relationships by female baboons. Animal Behaviour 58, 67-75.
  • Cheney, D.L. & Seyfarth, R.M. 2007. Baboon Metaphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226102443
  • Engh, A.E., Beehner, J.C., Bergman, T.J., Whitten, P.L., Hoffmeier, R.R., Seyfarth, R.M. & Cheney, D.L. 2006. Behavioural and hormonal responses to predation in female chacma baboons (Papio hamadryas ursinus). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B. 273, 707-712.
  • Silk, J.B., Beehner, J.C., Bergman, T.J., Crockford, C., Engh, A.L., Moscovice, L.R., Wittig, R.M., Seyfarth, R.M. & Cheney, D.L. 2009. The benefits of social capital: Close social bonds among female baboons enhance offspring survival. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B. 276, 3099-3104.
  • Cheney, D.L., Moscovice, R., Heesen, M., Mundry, R. & Seyfarth, R.M. 2010. Contingent cooperation in wild female baboons. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 9562-9566.
  • Cheney, D.L., Silk, J.B., & Seyfarth, R.M. 2012. Evidence for intrasexual selection in wild female baboons. Animal Behaviour 84, 21-27.
  • Platt, M.L., Seyfarth, R.M., & Cheney, D.L. 2016. Adaptations for social cognition in the primate brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 371, 20150096.
  • Silk, J.B., Seyfarth, R.M. & Cheney, D.L. 2016. Strategic use of affiliative vocalizations by wild female baboons. PLoS One 11: e0163978.

See also


  1. ^ Genzlinger, Nate (November 14, 2018). "Dorothy Cheney, Who Studied Primates Up Close, Dies at 68". NY Times. Retrieved November 20, 2018. Dorothy L. Cheney, whose careful research into how primates live and communicate revealed the surprising complexity of their thought processes and social structures, died on Friday at her home in Devon, Pa. She was 68.
  2. ^ "Past Fellows, Research Affiliates, and Visiting Scholars - Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences".
  3. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation - Fellows".
  4. ^ "Animal Behavior Society".
  5. ^ a b Viegas, Jennifer (April 10, 2018). "Profile of Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth". PNAS. Retrieved November 20, 2018. The duo’s postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, with whom they are close, have conducted research not only on primates but also on dogs, horses, and many other animals. As Cheney says, “We recognize that close bonds contribute to health, longevity, and reproductive success in both humans and other animals.”
  6. ^ "Biologist Dorothy Cheney Elected to National Academy of Sciences". University of Pennsylvania. May 28, 2015. Retrieved November 21, 2018. Professor of Biology Dorothy Cheney has been elected as a member by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in recognition of her distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Membership in the NAS is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive. The NAS membership totals approximately 2,250 members and nearly 440 foreign associates, of whom approximately 200 have received Nobel prizes.
  7. ^ "Drs. Cheney and Seyfarth Awarded the 2010 Cozzarelli Prize". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved November 21, 2018. Drs. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth’s recent PNAS paper - Contingent cooperation between wild female baboons - was awarded the 2010 Cozzarelli prize for the best article in the area of Behavioral and Social Sciences.
  8. ^ "Department of Biology".
  9. ^ "Animal Behavior Society".
  10. ^ "ASP - Distinguished Primatologist Award Winners".
  11. ^ "How Monkeys See the World".
  12. ^ Wade, Nicholas (October 9, 2007). "How Baboons Think (Yes, Think)". New York Times. Retrieved May 13, 2018. 'Monkey society is governed by the same two general rules that governed the behavior of women in so many 19th-century novels,' Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth write. 'Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with the members of high-ranking families.'
  13. ^ "Dorothy L. Cheney".

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