Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Gull cognition

I’m a PhD student conducting animal behaviour research. My research involves field observations and experimental studies of animals in natural settings as they interact with their environment. This is often referred to as ethology or behavioural biology, but, as I’m particularly interested in the cognitive mechanisms animals use to negotiate the environment and solve problems that impact on fitness (survival and reproduction), my research falls under comparative cognition.

Generalist species are those that can live in and invade a number of different environments.  It is likely that complex cognition, or ‘intelligence’, plays a key role in generalist behaviour. I am currently developing and conducting a number of studies to assess the assumptions of the Cognitive Buffer Hypothesis (CBH; Sol, 2009) using gull species (Family: Laridae) as a model system.

The CBH proposes that large brains, and by assumption sophisticated cognition, evolved to buffer organisms living in stochastic ecologies enabling them to produce flexible behavioural responses. Gulls are a family of generalist species that have invaded novel environments and particularly urban areas in the UK. I hope to provide a direct test of the CBH by assessing differences in neophobia, exploratory behaviour, innovative problem-solving and social learning among gulls in mixed-species foraging aggregations in coastal and urban areas.

My urban field sites are Billingsgate Market, a large seafood market in East London, and ZSL London ZooBillingsgate attracts a large number of gulls that aggregate in the car park areas to exploit waste from fish processing as a food resource. At present I am conducting observational research at this location assessing differences in foraging strategies used by competitively unequal gull species in mixed-species foraging aggregations.

The penguin enclosure at London Zoo attracts gulls of various species that exploit food provisions. At this site I am assessing the responses of gulls to a novel environmental object containing food.

These research projects are being conducted with the support and assistance of a number of institutions, including the Corporation of London (Billingsgate Market) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL); and I am collaborating with the North Thames Gull Group, an ornithological group that study the migration and movement of gulls around the Thames region.        

Robert Spencer

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