National Projects
Project duration: 
Sep 2021 to Aug 2024


Habitat alteration is one of the main current causes of extinction, and understanding how organisms respond to environmental changes remains a major scientific challenge of our time. A theory that has recently gained credence is the cognitive buffer hypothesis. The theory suggests that cognition buffers animals against environmental change by regulating their decisions regarding where to live, what to eat or which risks avoid. While this theory is supported by some evidence, we lack a mechanistic understanding of how decision-making affects population persistence under changing conditions. First, the widely-held notion that differences across species in decision-making processes primarily reflect differences in brain size and architecture is backed by insufficient evidence. Rather, it is increasingly appreciated that decision-making processes may also be affected by emotional responses, motor constrains, social behaviours, dispersal ability and life history. It follows that the demographic consequences of cognition cannot be inferred without an explicit consideration of these other factors. Second, most current evidence in support of the cognition buffer theory is based on the assumption that individuals within species are ecologically equivalent. This notion has nonetheless been challenged by growing evidence that individuals within populations sharing a same environment may substantial vary in niche use and personality, and that this variation may affect the resilience and stability of the population. Here, we propose to address these issues in birds by combining broad inter-specific comparative analyses to allow generalization with detailed individual-level studies on a species with outstanding cognitive skills (the jackdaw Corvus monedula).

The comparative approach will be used to investigate whether cognitive performance is 1) limited by brain architecture and 2) associated with life histories that trade current reproduction for growth and future reproduction, and whether 3) predicts (together with motor constrains and dispersal ability) the distribution and abundance of species subject to environmental changes.

Combining molecular analyses, field observations, field experiments, remote sensing data and individual-based modelling, we will use a population of jackdaws that has been monitored for two decades to 4) analyze how individuals gather and share information to exploit food resource that vary in time and space, and 5) assess how their decisions collectively affect population dynamics.

The proposed research has the potential to fill the current gap between theoretical and empirical work regarding cognitive responses of animals to environmental changes, and will contribute to our understanding on how human activities cause biodiversity loss.

Proyecto PID2020-119514GB-I00 financiado por MCIN/ AEI /10.13039/501100011033