Spotlight on… Julia Lehmann

Julia Lehmann

Position: Reader in Evolutionary Anthropology

Bio: Born in Germany, Julia completed her PhD in natural sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1999 with a dissertation on neuropharmacology in rats. A glutton for punishment, she also completed a postgraduate degree in statistics at the same time. From there, she held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig working on chimpanzees followed by a second postdoc with Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool, before joining the University of Roehampton in 2007.

Research interests: Julia’s research is concerned with the evolution of sociality and the factors influencing social organisation in mammals, including humans. She is especially interested in social dynamics/social networks and relationships within and between species. Her recent research looks at questions related to effects of group size and composition on behaviour; friendships in primates; intra-group competition, coping strategies, activity co-ordination and the importance of social networks in primate communities; primate biogeography and responses to climate change. Her newest projects focus on health and wellbeing in humans in the areas of Covid-19 and perimenopause.

You can see Julia speak about the topic of animal cooperation here:

Most significant work: Like humans, most primates live in social groups in which ‘friendships’ exist between individuals. However, establishing friendships (via grooming in most primates) requires time and the number of friends an individual has will be limited by time constraints. So what happens when groups get so large that individuals do not have enough time to befriend everyone? In her 2007 study, Julia investigated this and found that animals will indeed run ‘out of time’ when group size exceeds about 40 individuals, indicating that time constraints resulting from ecological pressure, such as predation pressure and food acquisition, force individuals to compromise on their social time. One way of overcoming such time constraints is to form more fluid social systems, where groups split and reconvene many times per day. Julia has extensively studied these so-called fission-fusion systems (humans also live in such fluid systems) and you can read more on this in her various papers (e.g. 2004, 2007, 2008).

Latest project: Human beings are social animals who rely heavily on face-to-face interactions and touch to deal with everyday stresses. Socially well-connected individuals are healthier, live longer and are generally less stressed. However, due to the social restrictions engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic, most people are suddenly cut off from physical contact with their friends and must rely on virtual interactions for social supports. But to what extent can virtual interactions provide the same benefits as in-person interactions?

This question forms the focus of Julia’s new study. As little is known of how effective virtual contacts are in the long run and in the absence of actual face-to-face contact, the current crisis provides an ideal ‘experimental setting’ in which to study questions like this, which would otherwise be impossible and unethical to address. If you are interested in participating in the survey, you can do so here.

Teaching: Julia convenes two undergraduate anthropology modules, ‘Understanding Behaviour’ and  ‘Primate Behaviour and Cognition’, which introduces students to the principles and concepts of animal behaviour and cognition, using an evolutionary approach. She also teaches intensively in the world-renowned Master of Research in Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation. 

Did you know…?

  • that Julia shares a name with a German journalist and tv reporter.
  • that Julia loves rock hyraxes and one day hopes to do a project on them.
  • that Julia spends her free time growing veg in her allotment and collecting eggs from her backyard chickens with her children.
  • that Julia’s husband also works UoR in Whitelands College.

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