Thursday, 28 November 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 28 November 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
28 November 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Communication, culture and 

collective motion in corvid societies

Dr. Alex Thornton 

(University of Exeter, UK)

Feathered apes - maybe this is not what you think of when you see a crow. It is, however, a very fitting term coined by Nicky Clayton and other researchers working on corvid cognition to highlight that the cognitive abilities of these animals are in many respects not inferior to those of apes and actually compare well also to our abilities.

In general, work on crows, apes and a few other animal species has led in recent years to a radical re-evaluation of animal cognition and of how we understand the evolution of cognition. Take the ability to plan for the future. Or to reminisce about the past. We used to think these are very much unique human abilities. Well, wrong (e.g. see here). For example, see the work on mental time travel (episodic-like memory and future planning) ability by food-caching Western Scrub-Jays (here). Similarly for the ability to understand the mind of others. Of course, differences remain in how we think, between humans and corvids (see here).

This is where jackdaws and Dr. Alex Thornton - our departmental seminar speaker of this week - spring in.

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Alex is genuinely interested in animal cognition and culture and what sets him apart from many other researchers in this field is his interest to do the experiments in the field, using free-ranging animals and not captive ones. This allows to understand the cognitive challenges faced by animals in the wild, under the selective pressures operating in natural populations. Alex started his work in the Kalahari, by trying to understand if and how adults teach young meerkats how to eat scorpions (see here):

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More recently Alex has started to work also on animals in the UK, using jackdaws as study system and this will be the subject of today's talk:

Corvids, birds of the crow family, have recently emerged as model organisms in the study of animal cognition. Laboratory studies have revealed striking cognitive feats, pointing to convergent cognitive evolution between corvids and other large-brained groups such as primates. However, the cognitive mechanisms corvids use to solve the challenges of their natural environments remain unclear. 

My work integrates ecological and psychological approaches, using field experiments to examine mechanisms of communication, culture and collective motion in corvids in the wild. 

Using playback experiments, I show that nestling jackdaws develop the ability to discriminate between conspecific calls prior to fledging. Later in life, the ability to discriminate between conspecific underpins the coordination of collective responses to threats later in life. 

I also examine the mechanisms underlying the spread of information through mixed-species corvid communities using two-action, two-option foraging tasks. These experiments demonstrate the use of simple local enhancement processes as well as arguably more cognitively demanding imitation of motor actions. 

Finally, I report the result of studies examining the structure of flocks and the decision-making processes underpinning group movements in mixed-species groups of jackdaws and rooks. Together, these results hint at the cognitive sophistication that has garnered corvids so much recent attention, but also highlight the importance of relatively simple mechanisms in driving behaviour.

See you all in the Zoo Museum - 1pm!

And yes - crows apparently love to play in the snow, too :-)

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