September 18, 2019 10:00 am
Department of Forest & Conservation Sciences
Title: Individual, social, and ecological determinants of behavioral flexibility
Abstract: As urban centers all over the world have grown, biologists have struggled to explain why some species can thrive despite human-induced environmental change whereas others suffer, often to the point of extinction. One potential explanation is that the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities has enabled some species to exhibit more flexible behavioral responses to changing environments. In this talk, I will summarize four lines of research that my lab is currently pursuing to better understand the evolution and determinants of behavioral flexibility in animals. First, I will describe our work elucidating the selection pressures that led to the evolution of intelligence in animals. I will highlight our PNAS paper investigating the relationship between brain size and problem-solving abilities in carnivores, wherein we provided some of the first empirical data for a long-hypothesized relationship between relative brain size and enhanced cognition. Second, I will describe research into how cognition facilitates adaptation to urban environments, which we perform via studies of urban carnivores. Third, I will discuss a recent review paper that my students and I published examining the cognition of species that experience high levels of conflict with humans. I will highlight examples of how individuals exhibiting complex cognitive abilities may be more likely to come into conflict with humans as well as how cognition enables some animals to avoid conflict with humans. Fourth, I will describe how individual personality and the structure of the social environment influence social learning, coordination, and problem solving in pairs of zebra finches. These lines of inquiry all inform our understanding of how animals use cognition to solve complex challenges in their environment, and how animals are able to respond flexibly to changing ecological and social environments.