Research

I am currently working on establishing a new research project that encompasses behavioural, ecological, and cognitive approaches to better understand how individuals respond to environmental changes. This topic is especially relevant given the global increase in urbanisation and habitat fragmentation. Click here for a more detailed overview.

Generally, I am interested in the evolution of cognition, and identifying which factors have led to the presence of certain cognitive abilities in some species, but not others. I employ a strong ecological and comparative perspective on studies on animal behaviour and cognition. An overview of some of my previous research can be found below:

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

Behavioural plasticity in a changing world

When confronted with environmental changes, the first response of an individual changes is behavioural. One interesting avenue is to determine which individuals/species have greater plasticity in their behavioural responses to adapt to these changes. For instance, individuals that have been raised in an unpredictable and dynamic environment may be more plastic in their responses than those that have been raised in a predictable and homogeneous environment. For this purpose, evaluating the cognitive abilities and behaviour of individuals raised in different environments can provide some insights.

On a more applied scale, we tend to view urban environment as homogeneous and predictable. On the contrary, urban environments are quite variable and dynamic, and may be both challenging and present new opportunities and resources. One first research avenue would be to compare individuals or species along an urbanization gradient in their breeding behaviour and fitness, their activity patterns and use of micro-niches (proportion and frequency), their foraging behaviour (e.g., time spent, number of food items, foraging locations), among others.

Another aspect would be to determine how and why individuals differ in their habitat choice and which individuals or species are most likely to “colonise” new habitats and exploit new niches. For example, are individuals more likely to disperse in an environment similar to where they were raised, and/or are individuals that are found at the edge of their distribution are less competitive and aggressive than individuals that are established in prime locations.

Finally, results from this research will be useful to understand the causes and consequences of behavioural plasticity by linking cognition and behaviour to environmental changes, and will help drafting managements plans and interventions.

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

 

Caching Behaviour in Social and Non-Social Species

  • Food-storing (i.e. caching) animals rely on food they cache to survive when resources in the environment are low;
  • Caching individuals must remember the location of their caches and limit the risk of losing their food caches by changing their caching behaviour in presence of potential thieves (i.e. pilferers);
  •  Corvids (e.g., magpies, jays, crows) are a group of bird species known to use various caching protection behaviours.

1. Do highly social species display cache protection behaviours?

Corvids vary in their sociality, from solitary species like nutcrackers to highly social species that live in flocks of 500+ individuals like pinyon jays. The social context during which individuals would cache differ between species. Highly social species might never be able to cache alone, yet they still modify their caching behaviour when observed. They preferentially allocate their food caches to locations that are less accessible to other individuals.

2. Do corvids display cache protection behaviours when observed by an individual from a different species?

3. Which social cues corvids use to display cache protection behaviours when observed by another individual?

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.