October 15, 2018

Individual, Social, and Ecological Influences on Problem-Solving Abilities

Sarah Benson-Amram, University of Wyoming

As urban centers all over the world have grown, biologists have struggled to explain why some species can invade and 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 anthropogenic disturbances. Empirical evidence for this hypothesis is lacking, however, as it is difficult both to assess cognition in wild animals and to standardize assessments of cognition across multiple species in differing environments. The main goals of my research program are: 1) to understand the selection pressures driving the evolution of intelligence, 2) to clarify how the expression of behavioral flexibility and other cognitive abilities changes depending on the individual’s personality, the presence and identity of conspecifics, and the ecological environment, and 3) to investigate how cognition might facilitate successful adaptation to human-altered environments. In this talk, I will touch upon all three of these areas of research. I will first discuss my work examining the evolution of brain size and problem-solving abilities in a large comparative study of zoo-housed carnivores. I will then describe results from our research examining cognitive abilities in wild and captive populations of two highly successful carnivores, the spotted hyena and the raccoon. Finally, I will briefly describe some current research in our lab examining the interaction between personality and problem-solving performance in the monogamous zebra finch.