The evolution of cognition is one of the most important, yet poorly understood issues in modern biology. The field of comparative cognition has generated a wealth of research into the cognitive processes underpinning animal behaviour, yet the evolutionary forces that have driven and shaped these processes are poorly understood. To progress the field, we need to determine three things: First, do individuals differ in their cognitive performance (CP) such that selection has variation on which to act? Second, is an individual’s CP heritable, and how is its expression shaped by non-genetic factors? Third, does an individual’s CP predict their fitness by determining their survival or reproductive chances? Answers to each of these questions are all significant steps in themselves, and each individually deepens our understanding of the evolution of cognition, but the real strength of this project is that they can be addressed in synchrony in a single, free-living study system. This will permit a more robust framework in which to tackle the broad question of how cognitive performance may evolve that can then be applied to a broader set of taxa and conditions.
Large numbers of birds can be bred and reared under controlled conditions, probed with established psychometric tests proven on domestic chickens and released into the wild where their fates can be tracked and their wild behaviour observed both directly and remotely.
Where Do We Work?
Most of our fieldwork is conducted at the Rothampstead Research farm at North Wyke a 250ha farm in Mid Devon with 40ha of woodland. There is no shooting of pheasants on this farm or much of the surrounding land, and predators are not controlled.
What Do We Do?
We rear, imprint and habituate hundreds of pheasant chicks each year. These are subjected to a battery of psychometric tests exploring aspects of learning, memory and executive control. Birds are individually marked and released at 10 weeks old. The behaviour of birds is observed post-release using direct watches, telemetry and GPS tracking. The fate of birds is followed, with dead birds being located and breeding birds being monitored. Surviving birds can be recaptured and bred. Early life conditions can be manipulated, both pre-hatching and post-hatching.