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DEPE | Stratégie scientifique » Ethologie évolutive » Odile Petit

Odile Petit


Evolutionary ethology
Department Ecology, Physiology and Ethology
23 rue Becquerel
67087 Strasbourg Cedex 2
Tel : +
Fax : +33.3.
e-mail : odile.petit(at)


Scientist, permanent position, CNRS.
Head of Evolutionary Ethology group.


Born 16 july 1966

1996 - PhD in Neurosciences and Ethology, University of Strasbourg, with honours.

2002 – Ability to supervise research, University of Strasbourg.

2012 Science Prize of the Academy of the Rhineland
Chevalier of the National Order of Merit
Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium

Current research

What makes a good leader ? The animal origin of leadership.

Every day, humans make decisions about issues of interest for the community they represent. It is often suggested that certain individuals can act as leaders because they have more influence over others. Social and political scientists have long studied how particular individuals influence the opinions and behaviours of others. Understanding how animal species successfully reach an optimal decision could permit a more efficient assessment of how humans reach decisions since it is easier to study animals than humans on that topic. For instance, in the case of activities’ synchronisation that is one of the major challenges of any society, animals depend on their congeners to reach common goals and maintain cohesion. Collective movements are therefore the most obvious manifestation of consensus decisions we can find in animals and in this project, we study collective movements in the domestic horse using both observational and experimental procedures. The main innovative aim of this project is to disentangle social influences from the intrinsic (more physiological) attributes of individuals. We aim to predict which individuals can become leaders in any society. Indeed, if we want to understand the functioning of a society and establish how bad or good decisions can emerge, we need to identify which individuals play a key role in collective decisions. Ultimately, studying how consensus decisions are reached in mammals will question us about the uniqueness of human democracy, its origins and the evolutionary continuity of group decision-making.

This project will now be extended to non human primates and humans. In this next step of the project, we aim to investigate whether leaders are more charismatic and have greater prestige than other group members.

Collaborators : M. Valenchon (DEPE, Strasbourg), C. Bret (Liverpool University), M. van Vugt (University of Amsterdam), J-L. Deneubourg (free University of Brussels), F-X. Dechaume-Moncharmont (Biogeosciences laboratory, CNRS-University of Burgundy).

Funding : this project was funded by USIAS (

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Collective movement in horses
Crédit photo : Camille Dorn

Food despite danger : assessing the mechanisms of crop raiding in baboons

Human activities are likely to modify selection pressures that facilitate or hinder the maintaining of collective strategies in species living in stable social groups. The spreading of agriculture led to modifications in the habitat, providing new opportunities for animals to eat food grown for humans. Although raiding provides access to a high quantity energetic food in little time, entering protected areas also entails a greater risk of injury and death. Crop raiding in the wild provides a perfect open-air laboratory to study and model anti-predatory behaviours, collective decisions and consensus when a group is confronted with an uncertain context or danger. This study will investigate whether a group decision to perform crop raiding is the result of a trade-off between individual and social information, and how social relationships within the groups influence collective decision-making through field observations and experimental approaches, respectively.
This project is conducted at the long-term site, the Zone Atelier Hwange (Hwange LTER), which offers a unique context for this project, namely a varied scale of sites ranging from fully protected to agricultural land, a long-lasting cooperation with local organisations allowing for large-scale field experiments, and almost a decade of experience monitoring human-wildlife interactions at the edge of the protected area.

Link :

Collaborators : C. Guerbois (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University), H. Fritz (LBBE, CNRS-University of Lyon), C. Schweitzer (Biogeosciences laboratory, CNRS- University of Burgundy Dijon), V. Dufour (DEPE, Strasbourg).

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Children chasing baboon raiders in Hwange
Crédit photo : Tommy Gaillard


Keeping horses in groups : implication for equine welfare and consequences on human-Horse relationship (co-PI, with Mathilde Valenchon).
This project consists in exploring how the social environment of domestic horses impacts their welfare and their relationships with humans. Indeed, many ordinary housing practices (e.g. individual stables) supress the opportunity for horses to interact and establish social network, which is against their behavioural needs as a social species. Social deprivation is known to have strong impact on horses. It mays alter drastically welfare, induce health problems, degrade human-horse relationship, and decrease the safety for both humans and animals. However, the evolution of practices is already at strike and our studies aim to support this evolution by providing scientific knowledge on horses’ sociality and the development of housing practices that enable every horse to have access to an adequate social environment.

Funding : IFCE and Verein zur Förderung der Forschung im Pferdesport

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Resocialisation of stallions which have been kept in social isolation for years
Crédit photo : Mathilde Valenchon

Can we use urban area as a potential habitat for European hamsters (Cricetus cricetus) as a solution for protecting the species ? (co-PI, with Christiane Weber).
The European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) is the last hamster’s species living naturally. Native from central Europe, the species is present in Alsace at the westernmost side of its living range. Because it preferentially lives in the crops and destroys the youngest plants when it comes out of hibernation, it has largely been hunted and exterminated by local populations. More recently, urban sprawl and cultivation practices sharply damaged its habitat and reduced its population, pushing it to the edge of extinction in Alsace. However, since it is significantly impacted by environmental variations and because it shares its habitat with a lot of different species, it has been recognized as “umbrella species”.
In the current project, we aim to assess the use of urban area as a potential habitat for European hamsters in an urban sprawl context : if urban environment is able to shelter hamsters’ populations, introducing hamsters in cities could be used as a conservation measure. This project finds its origin from the population of hamsters in Vienna (Austria) which succeed in living in city center and is now adapted to urban conditions. We are currently conducting experiments in controlled conditions to study the impact of night-time light pollution (emitted by streetlights of suburban park) on the behaviour and the physiology of this species in order to assess the feasibility of such a proposal.
Collaborators : C. Weber (Tetis, UMR 9000, Montpellier), V. Simmoneaux (INCI, Strasbourg), C. Habold (DEPE, Strasbourg), Y. Handrich (DEPE, Strasbourg).
Funding : Life + ALISTER (

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Breeding cage of Hamster equipped with an artificial burrow
Crédit photo : Lauréline Guinnefollau