Research Programs

Visual Search and Virtual Evolution
Spatial Cognition and Navigation
Evolution of Behavioral Flexibility
Comparative Social Cognition

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Last updated: 02 April 2014

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Research at the UNL Center for Avian Cognition includes a range of field and laboratory studies on parrots and corvids. Our research programs combine psychological and biological perspectives to explore cognitive mechanisms that are molded by evolution in response to particular ecological demands.

Our program on visual search and attention examined the effects of target and background appearance on the foraging strategies of blue jays. We then tested the consequences of these mechanisms for the evolution of the appearance of their prey. Blue jays commonly feed on cryptically colored moths that rest concealed on tree trunks during the daytime. We have emulated this system in the laboratory using genetic algorithms to specify the phenotypes of virtual moths, which are presented on a variety of different backgrounds. These experiments have shed light on a number of evolutionary questions, such as the origin of polymorphism in cryptic prey, that were otherwise inaccessible to direct test.

A second program has explored spatial cognition in Clark's nutcrackers and other seed-caching corvids, with an emphasis on the cognitive mechanisms used in inferring spatial location from the configuration of surrounding landmarks.

We have conducted an extensive series of field observations to explore the adaptive significance of behavioral flexibility in New Zealand parrots, particularly as it relates to the function of social play and vocal imitation.

Our final research program consists of comparative operant and observational studies of related corvid species to explore cognitive mechanisms associated with complex sociality, including transitive social inference, deception in seed caching, and the neurobiology of species differences in cognitive representations.