Dr. Yitzchak Ben-Mocha

IMPRS Alumni
MPI for Ornithology Seewiesen
Zurich, Switzerland

Main Focus

Humans’ social cognition has no equivalent in the entire animal kingdom. In spite of decades of intense research, fundamental questions remain, including (i) the selective pressures that led to the development of humans’ sophisticated social cognition, and (ii) whether humans’ cognitive capacities rely on unique cognitive mechanisms. The current debate is hindered by several shortcomings: (1) the predominant research focus on other species’ similarity to humans in terms of phylogenesis rather than in terms of their social system and (2) the paucity of research on socio-cognitive capacities in natural settings.

To contribute to the debate on the evolution of humans’ social cognition, the proposed research will investigate the hypothesis that “the presence of intensive cooperative motives influences communicative complexity”. To examine this question, I will investigate two distinct parameters crucial for human communication: reference and joint attention.
To overcome the above described shortcomings, the proposed study will systematically compare the socio-cognitive complexity of two closely related avian species which considerably differ in their cooperative motives: the long-tailed glossy starling (Lamprotornis caudatus) and the purple starling (Lamprotornis purpureus). While the first species lives in permanent social groups where all group members cooperate to raise the group’s offspring (cooperative breeding), the latter species breeds in pairs only. The study’s objectives are:
  1. to document and examine the use of gestural communication in a referential way in the above species; and
  2. to explicate whether and how the observed gestural communication is enabled by joint attention.
Communicative behaviors of the study species (done in the context of invitation for mating and parental care) will be video-documented, coded and compared. To allow cross species comparison, definitions and criteria for inference that were used in the study of prelinguistic human infants will be applied. We predict that, if cooperative motives have a positive influence on social cognition, sophisticated cognitive capacities such as referential and joint attentional communication will be found in the cooperative species but not necessarily in their less cooperative sister taxa. 

Curriculum Vitae


  • 2015-present: PhD studentship, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany (Humboldt Research Group Pika)
  • 2011-2014: MSc Zoology, Tel Aviv University, Thesis: "The social and functional role of sentinel behavior in the Arabian babbler (Turdoides squamiceps)"
  • 2006-2009: B.A. Philosophy, Tel Aviv University, Majors in Ethics and Philosophy of Language

Work and Field Experience

  • 03-09.2014: Field research on Arabian babblers’ gestural communication, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (group S. Pika)
  • 01-02.2014: Internship on gestural communication, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (group S. Pika)
  • 2012-2014: Research coordinator: “Competition for nesting sites between invasive and local bird species”, Haifa University, Israel
  • 2010-2011: Visits to zoological and ecological research and conservation projects in East and Central Africa
  • 2009-2010: Field research assistant, The Arabian babbler research, Tel Aviv University
  • 2006-2010: Field youth teacher, The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel
  • 2008-2009: Management of youth movement (Tel Aviv division) The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

Awards & Scholarships

  • 2015: 3 years PhD grant, DAAD
  • 2014: Grant for short-term internship abroad, Tel Aviv University
  • ASAB conference travel grant
  • 2011-2013: MSc scholarship, Department of Zoology, Tel Aviv University
  • 2008: First Prize, Ford Conservation and Environmental, Awarded to a SPNI community project under my responsibility
  • 2004: Scholarship of Excellence, the Israeli Open University
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