Research

Generally, I am interested in the evolution of complex cognition, and identifying which factors have led to the presence of complex cognitive abilities in some species, but not others. I employ a strong ecological and comparative perspective on studies on animal cognition, and am particularly intrigued by social behaviour and cognition in the wild.

  • Inhibitory control
  • Caching
  • Animal personality
  • Habitat selection
  • Abstract concept-learning
  • Mirror self-recognition
  • Methods in comparative cognition

Inhibitory Control

  • Ability to restrict a prepotent response in favour of a more rewarding one;
  • Essential component for other more complex cognitive abilities (e.g., future planning, problem solving);
  • Easy comparisons between species, thus tasks measuring inhibitory control are increasingly used in comparative cognition.

1. Are the different tasks purporting to assess inhibitory control all measuring the same cognitive ability?

Pet dogs were presented with four common tasks used to assess whether individuals can stop going directly towards a reward as there is a barrier preventing them to reach it.

capture-decc81cran-2021-06-04-acc80-19.49.47

a) Cylinder task: individual needs to retrieve a food reward from within a transparent cylinder while avoiding touching the transparent surface;

b) Detour task: individual needs to retrieve a food reward from behind a fence by detouring around the fence and avoid the transparent middle section;

c) A-not-B task: individual needs to retrieve a food reward from Bucket B after having first been trained to retrieve a food reward from Bucket A;

d) A-not-B barrier task: individual needs to retrieve a food reward from behind a barrier through the opening on Side B after having first been trained to go through the opening on Side A.

Results from this study (click here) indicated that not all tasks measured the same ability.

2. Which factors may influence an individual’s response inhibition?

i) Personality, more specifically neophobia (the hesitancy to approach something novel)

Two species of corvids (i.e., bird family including jays, magpies, crows) – Western scrub jays (see picture below) and black-billed magpies – were tested using the Cylinder task (described above). Birds’ neophobia was also tested using a) the Novel Environment paradigm, during which individuals are released in a room that they have never been to before, and b) the Novel Object paradigm, during which individuals are presented with an object they have never seen before. Neophobia did not correlate with inhibitory control (click here).

SCJA_Inhibition

ii) Diet, more specifically glucose

Sled dogs were put into three diet treatments: a diet low on glucose, a diet high on glucose, and pure glucose, and tested on the Cylinder task, on the A-not-B task, and on the A-not-B barrier task (described above). We found that the amount of glucose in the diet did not influence an individual’s inhibitory control (click here).

Inhibition_Dog

3. Can individuals learn to inhibit?

Clark’s nutcrackers (see picture below) were given multiple trials of the Cylinder task (described above). Even if none of them successfully retrieved the food reward from the cylinder without touching it, they learned to do so over trials, even when confronted to an unnatural stimulus, like a transparent barrier (click here).

CLNU_Tube

Cache Protection Strategies in Social and Non-Social Species

Conspecific_Pilfering_nopoop.jpg

Food-storing (i.e. caching) animals rely on food they cache to survive when resources in the environment are low. However, caching animals must retrieve enough caches for this strategy to be evolutionary advantageous. Thus, caching individuals must not only remember the location of their caches but also limit the risk of losing their food caches by identifying potential thieves (i.e. pilferers) and displaying cache protection strategies. Corvids are a group of bird species known to use various cache protection strategies once they have identified an observer as a threat. In my study, I directly compared the cache protection strategies used by two highly cache-dependent corvid species: highly-social pinyon jays, and non-social Clark’s nutcrackers.