Odile Petit


Scientist, permanent position, CNRS.
Team leader

Email: odile.petit(at)inrae.fr or odile.petit(at)cnr.fr



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. 


Collaborators: M. Valenchon (University of Bristol), J-L. Deneubourg (free University of Brussels) & F-X. Dechaume-Moncharmont (LEHNA, CNRS-University of Lyon).

Funding: USIAS (http://www.usias.fr/en/projects/projects-2013/the-animal-origin-of-leadership/).


SoWell: Integrating the social dimension in equestrian facilities: consequences on horse welfare, cognitive processes and performances.

The ability to establish relationships with conspecifics is a prerequisite for the well-being of social species. Some of them are nevertheless bred in social isolation, a stress-generating situation for animals. This is the case of the domestic horse (Equus caballus) which, despite its social character, is traditionally housed in isolation. The negative consequences of this individual housing on the well-being and health of equid are now well-known and could be extended to areas that have not yet been fully explored, such as cognition. There is indeed a strong relationship between well-being and cognition and the effect of social stress could therefore have implications both on the well-being state of the animal and on its cognitive skills. The purpose of this project is to evaluate the impact of desocialization on the cognitive abilities of horses. We assume that social deprivation will impact learning skills of young horses during breaking, slows down acquisitions, promotes resistance or even defensive behaviours in adult horses and generates a negative emotional state. Thus, by modulating the possibility of establishing social contacts, our work will test the impact of maintaining social cohesion on learning processes in the young horse, as well as on the perception of the environment and cognitive flexibility in the adult horse. The expected results should highlight the importance of sociality in horses and its involvement in the relationship between emotional state, well-being and cognition. In this project, we will use the social box, a solution that integrates the social needs of horses into existing facilities. The basic principle of this social box is to give the possibility for two horses housed in adjacent individual boxes to interact together securely. An opening in the partition separating the horses allows them to pass their heads and necks up to their shoulders to establish close tactile and olfactory contact. Part of the partition remains full allowing the horses to withdraw and be out of reach when they do not wish to interact anymore. The pillars of the partition are padded so that the risk of injury during interactions is reduced.

Society today is increasingly sensitive to animal ethics and the equestrian circles are also concerned by this change. Equine culture is in transition and respect for the needs of horses is now at the heart of riders’ concerns. With this project, we wish to support societal change while taking into account the constraints of the stakeholders of the equestrian sector.

odile chevaux 2

Collaborators: Juliette Mos (IFCE), Sophie Boyer (Réseau équin de l’IDELE) & M. Valenchon (University of Bristol).

Funding: Institut Français du Cheval et de l’Équitation

Human-wildlife conflict in peri-urban areas: testing mitigation strategies to effectively decrease the urban foraging behaviour of Chacma baboons.

In South Africa, Chacma baboons (Papio hamadryas ursinus) living near peri-urban areas forage on anthropogenic food. They destroy crops, scatter waste from trash cans and damage homes. Although this species is protected by law the material damage and stress experienced by local residents ultimately result in the wounding and killing of baboons. A number of methods have been tested over the past 20 years to solve this problem, but none proved successful over the long-term. An efficient management system requires a detailed knowledge of how baboon troops proceed and organize during these urban foraging actions. In this project, we aim to examine the urban foraging strategies developed by a troop of baboons in response to experimental and natural changes in anthropogenic food availability in a peri-urban environment, the George campus of Nelson Mandela University (SA). In a second project, we wish to investigate the type of signal (visual, olfactory and auditory signals) used by baboons to recognize their predator. This will help us to determine if we could use these signals as efficient baboons’ deterrent.  Overall, with this project, we will search for effective mitigation strategies and then hope contributing to limit a major source of human-baboon conflict in the Western Cape province of South Africa and other areas.

odile baboon 3

Collaborators: C. Guerbois (Nelson Mandela University) & H. Fritz (UMI Rehabs)