Matthew Anderson, Ph.D.

Associate Dean (Curriculum & Advising), College of Arts & Sciences; Associate Professor, Psychology

Areas Taught: Psychology, Animal Studies

Expertise: Flamingo Behavior, Animal Learning and Behavior, Laterality

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Understanding Behavior through the Preferences of Flamingos

Psychological studies of animal behavior often focus on rats and mice. Psychologist Matthew Anderson, Ph.D., spends much of his time observing an entirely different population: flamingos. “They’re very social,” he notes, and that is one aspect that makes study of them relevant to many other species – humans included. “There’s a need in psychology to understand a wider diversity of species.”

During a visit to the Philadelphia Zoo, Anderson was struck by the speculation over the oft-asked question: “Why do flamingos stand on one leg?” His curiosity sparked, he began observing the birds more closely. Now, he is one of a few psychologists in the nation and world who specializes in the study of the pink-colored bird’s behavior, bringing a unique perspective and understanding to the study of these iconic animals.

What’s the answer to that zoo perennial? “They primarily stand on one leg to conserve body heat,” he says, but they do not appear to favor a side.

He has noticed, however, that flamingos prefer right over left while resting their long, nimble necks. Through the groundbreaking research, he discovered that left-leaners “are in more fights. The righties tend to be less frequently involved in aggressive encounters with other flamingos.” Such laterality studies could extend to human handedness and behaviors. “There is some evidence that non-right-handed people have an increased risk of mental health problems,” he says.

Anderson collects data at the Philadelphia Zoo as well as from various webcams trained on flamingo populations around the world.

He has published in Journal of Ornithology, Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition and many other peer-reviewed journals. Anderson has done extensive media interviews on flamingos with outlets that include the BBC’s Earth News, USA Today’s On Deadline, MSNBC the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The New York Times.

He earned his doctorate in experimental psychology from Kent State University.