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Cognition and Brains of Ecological Invaders

Final Report Summary - COBRA (Cognition and Brains of Ecological Invaders)

The joint exchange program involved the movement of three experienced researchers between the Universities of Vienna, Austria, University of St Andrews, UK, Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, and University of Newcastle, Australia. Specifically, a researcher from Newcastle spent 6 months in Europe, split between St Andrews, Vienna, and Bochum. Researchers from Bochum and Vienna visited Newcastle for a total of 12 months. At both their home institution and during each secondment, exchange researchers have collected data towards a geographically global research project that aims to use a collection of avian species as model systems to understand: 1. The role of behavioural flexibility in species' adaptation to urbanization, and 2. The extent to which behavioural flexibility is associated with changes in brain anatomy.

The program was structured along four work packages (WP1-4). While WP1 concerned the project management and coordination, WP2-4 concerned the empirical studies on Indian mynahs (WP2), European crows (WP3) and European songbirds like house sparrows and great tits (WP4). Birds were tested in the field with simple problem solving tasks for their behavioural flexibility along a rural to urban gradient. For instance, they had to remove a cork that was blocking the access to food at a known feeder. By examining several species, in several geographical locations, using several different measures of behavioural flexibility, and describing associated brain changes, we find support for the hypothesis that increasing behavioural flexibility in increasingly urbanized environments is a general effect. Specifically, urban birds tend to be more exploratory and more risk taking than rural birds, but they do not show any differences in innovativeness, sociality, or responses to predators. These findings clearly demonstrate what factors makes urban birds ‘special’ and provide hints for when to expect species differences. The results likely have implications for conservation attempts of declining species and the management of invasive species. They also highlight the importance of comparative studies at different places that could only be achieved by close collaboration between different researchers and their working groups.

Although some analyses are still ongoing, the project already resulted in 14 manuscripts for publication in international peer-reviewed journals and 16 presentations at conferences, workshops and seminars. Notably, the project resulted in the invitation to edit a special issue in the renowned journal Animal Cognition on one of the project’s main topics (the role of cognition in adapting to changing environments).