Vol 8, Issue 3, August 2021

No Evidence for Cross-Contextual Consistency in Spatial Cognition or Behavioral Flexibility in a Passerine


Troisi, C. A., Cooke, A. C., Davidson, G. L, de la Hera, I., Reichert, M. S., & Quinn, J. L. (2021). No evidence for cross-contextual consistency in spatial cognition or behavioral flexibility in a passerine. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 8(3), 446-461. https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


Although the evolution of cognitive differences among species has long been of interest in ecology, whether natural selection acts on cognitive processes within populations has only begun to receive similar attention. One of the key challenges is to understand how consistently cognitive traits within any one domain are expressed over time and across different contexts, as this has direct implications for the way in which selection might act on this variation. Animal studies typically measure a cognitive domain using only one task in one context and assume that this captures the likely expression of that domain in different contexts. This use of limited and restricted measures is not surprising because, from an ecologist’s perspective, cognitive tasks are laborious to employ, and if the measure requires learning a particular aspect of the task (e.g., reward type, cue availability, scale of testing), then it is difficult to repeat the task as the learning is context specific. Thus, our knowledge of whether individual differences in cognitive abilities are consistent across contexts is limited, and current evidence suggests that consistency is weak. We tested up to 32 wild great tits (Parus major) to characterize the consistency of two cognitive abilities, each in two different contexts: 1) spatial cognition at two different spatial scales, and 2) behavioral flexibility as performance in a detour reaching task and reversal learning in a spatial task. We found no evidence of a correlation between individuals’ performance in two measures of spatial cognition or two measures of behavioral flexibility. This suggests that cognitive performance is highly plastic and sensitive to differences across tasks, that variants of these well-known tasks may tap into different combinations of both cognitive and non-cognitive mechanisms, or that the tasks simply do not adequately measure each putative cognitive domain. Our results highlight the challenges of developing standardized cognitive assays to explain natural behavior and to understand the selective consequences of that variation. 


Cognition, Spatial cognition, Inhibitory control, Great tits, Consistency, Repeatability