Cognitive Science Colloquium Lecture – 'Environmental Variation and the Evoluton of Spatial Cognition in Food-Caching Birds'

Friday, September 6, 2019 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm

This lecture is part of the Cognitive Science Colloquium Series, presented by the UA Cognitive Science Program.

Speaker: Vladimir V. Pradvosudov, Professor of Zoology, Department of Biology, University of Nevada, Reno

Lecture title: "Environmental Variation and the Evolution of Spatial Cognition in Food-Caching Birds"

Abstract: Animals show large variation in cognitive abilities, both across and within species, and an important question is why such variation exists.

Food-caching birds are well known to store extremely large numbers of individual food caches and to rely on these food caches to survive the winter, and they rely on spatial memory to find their caches. Food-caching parids (chickadees and tits) make more food caches than any other bird species; some parids have been reported to store hundreds of thousands of individual caches every year. Compared to non-caching species, food-caching species appear to have better spatial memory and a larger hippocampus, a brain region associated with spatial learning, and it is hypothesized that such differences have evolved because of extreme dependence on food caches.

We have been investigating variation in spatial ability within two chickadee species by comparing birds living in environments with large differences in winter climate severity. More severe and longer winters should be associated with more dependence on food caching and hence on spatial memory for survival. Our work indeed confirms that populations from harsher winter environments have better spatial memory and a larger hippocampus across latitudinal, longitudinal and elevation gradients of climate. Our data also show that spatial cognition is under natural selection and that selection is likely to produce differences in cognition associated with different environments.

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