Cognition plays a critical role in how organisms interact with their social and ecological environment, and while the mechanisms underlying cognitive processes are becoming clearer, we still know little about the evolution of cognitive traits in natural populations. Cognitive abilities of organisms implicitly lie at the core of many fields since they determine in part how organisms compete with each other and acquire mates, how they find food and avoid being eaten, how they flexibly adjust to new contexts, and how they navigate landscapes. Many different cognitive capacities have been characterized and show within and across species variation, yet the extent to which this variation results from ecological imperatives faced by each species or population remains to be determined. Furthermore, despite progress in the neurophysiology of cognition in model organisms, we still have little understanding of the neural structure underlying cognitive traits important in wild organisms as well as how natural selection influences neural structure.
Our goal is to examine the evolution of cognitive traits in a wild bird species by measuring multiple cognitive abilities, neural structure via MRI, and fitness to provide new insights into variation and the evolution of cognition. We will study 8 populations of great tits that lie along two ecological gradients (altitude, urbanization) that should favor different cognitive traits. Success in this ambitious project requires us to design new cognitive tests and a new touchscreen test system, new analytic methods (automated video analysis), explore brain structure in a non-model organism using MRI, and measure ecology and fitness of wild birds. To do this, we have assembled an interdisciplinary research group including specialties in brain imaging, animal cognition, computer sciences/ analytics, and evolutionary biology. This combination of expertise gives us the tools to succeed since each researcher has the appropriate skills to execute their portion of the study while contributing new methods and knowledge. In each case, there is considerable potential for novel contributions within each field as well as important advances for the interdisciplinary efforts linking evolution, cognition, and neurosciences. Combining data on fitness, cognition, and brain physiology on the same individuals in wild populations of birds will give us an unprecedented understanding of how selection operates on and shapes variation in cognition.