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The evolutionary ecology of cognition across a heterogeneous landscape

Periodic Report Summary 2 - EVOLECOCOG (The evolutionary ecology of cognition across a heterogeneous landscape)

This project aims to examine the evolutionary ecological significance of individual variation in cognitive performance in a wild great tit population across conifer and mixed woodland fragments in Cork, Ireland. The project is in its third year and is being driven by a team of three postdocs, 3 PhD students and 2 Research Assistants working in the field and with wild birds temporarily brought into captivity. There are three main objectives.

The first objective is to develop new ways of measuring cognition in wild birds and to examine a range of proximate causes of variation. The main techniques we had planned on using did not work and instead we developed several new approaches, all of which are now working well in the wild. The first of these is to measure spatial learning using an array of 5 feeders, only one of which is allocated to any one individual in the population using selective PIT tag technology, which that individual needs to learn is the one that delivers food for them, and which can be reversed once learning criterion is reached. The second method we developed is a modified detour reaching task at the nestbox, which is used to measure inhibitory control, a key executive cognitive function. We have also measured cognition in nest building behavior using natural and experimental variation. In addition we are measuring problem solving performance, and during the breeding season, song performance and repertoire size, and song memory of neighbours. The proximate factors we have so far investigated include stress, motivation, personality, group size, social networks and the microbiome. This has been achieved using a combination of field experiments and using experimental manipulations in captivity, and by using personality selection-lines in the Netherlands.

The second objective we have begun is to examine the consequences of this variation for functional behavior. So for example we have being collecting data on diet and provisioning behavior using cameras and DNA metabarcoding of faecal matter to ask if our spatial learning measures predict these fundamental measures of resource acquisition. We are in the process of conducting tests on how inhibition in combination with personality might influence key foraging decisions under the risk of predation. Similarly we have collected data on incubation efficiency using a range of approaches to examine how nest building behavior influences parental investment tradeoffs. Another area we are collecting data on is to examine how measures of song performance and sperm quality in combination might predict extra pair paternity and mating success, or offspring quality through improved access to resources. Finally we are working towards examining how many cognitive traits in combination might influence reproductive success to ask whether naturally and sexually selected cognitive traits might be under antagonistic selection.