Animal Cognitive Ecology:

Dawn of a New Science

Almost everyone who has shared a home with a pet has no doubt that at least some animals have recognizable emotions and motivations. For example, our dogs seem downright ecstatic to play or be reunited with us, our cats seem to pushily solicit and thoroughly enjoy being stroked at some times, demanding to be left alone at others. Yet, until quite recently, anthropomorphism was regarded as the cardinal sin of animal behavior. Attributing human-like motivations or mental states to animals was scrupulously avoided by ethologists, in the belief that doing so could lead to serious misinterpretations of why animals do the things they do. Within the past two decades, however, it has become more acceptable to credit animals with some manner of motivations and mental states that we had previously regarded as uniquely human. This change has granted us new ways to understand animal behavior.

One of the newest and most promising approaches to animal behavior is called cognitive ecology. Cognition may be defined as the neuronal processes through which animals acquire and make use of information. Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their surrounding environment, both living and non-living. Cognitive ecology represents a fusion of these two disciplines. Thus, cognitive ecology is concerned with how animals obtain information about the environment, relate it to themselves, and use it to survive. In practical terms, cognitive ecologists study the effects of information processing and decision making on animal reproductive success. The more efficiently an animal uses information from the environment to increase its genetic representation in future generations, the more adaptive are its cognitive abilities.

Various constraints limit a brain's capacity to process information. As a finite structure, a brain has a sharply limited ability to handle information simultaneously. Therefore, an increase in the amount of information may decrease the quality of its processing by the brain and the competency of performing tasks based upon that information. For example, attention may be focused on a small portion of the visual field. A predator hunting for cryptic prey may maximize search efficiency by focusing on a single attribute, such as a specific color or shape. This attribute forms the basis of a 'search image'. As a result of this strategy, however, a predator's search rate is greatly reduced because only one type of prey can be scanned for at a time. Limited attention also restricts the capacity of an animal to simultaneously search for food and monitor predator activity. Animals cannot sustain high-quality information processing for extended periods. As a consequence, in relying on a search image to scan for food, performance of tasks such as vigilance may be greatly reduced in competence. This reduction in vigilance may, in turn, affect temporal patterns of activity and rest. For example, an animal's foraging patterns may shift to suboptimal locations or times to reduce risk of predation. Inherent limitations of a brain's information processing capabilities thus force all animals to make such compromises.

To a greater or lesser extent, the brains of all animals store experiences in the form of memories. There are two basic types of memory, working and long-term. Working memory relies on short-term storage of information to be used in the near future. A familiar example is temporarily committing a phone number to memory while one dials; in most cases, the number is lost from working memory by the time the phone is replaced in its cradle. Working memory typically has a very limited capacity, although perhaps like humans animals can learn to overcome this constraint. In contrast, long-term memory is generally regarded as being virtually unlimited. Long-term memory enables humans and other animals to store information over a protracted period, often years or even decades. Examples include remembering the name of a childhood playmate or the eye color of one's grandmother. However, it is likely that maintaining memories is costly especially the effort required to prevent mingling of various items stored in memory. Most of us, for example, cannot faithfully recall our high school locker combination, as this once-useful information has become clouded through long disuse and replacement with bank account, social security, and various other numbers that plague our adult lives. This mingling of memories, combined with limited attention span, probably forces non-human animals to limit the number of experiences stored in long-term memory and to concentrate working memory on a single activity at a time.

Learning may be defined as the processes by which animals record experiences in memory and draw upon them to alter their responses to their environment. Not all forms of learning are equally complex. Simple forms of learning are effective as long as an identical behavioral response is a sufficient adaptation to some frequent environmental change. The processes by which animals learn that a given stimulus has no consequences for them is termed 'habituation'. With repeated exposure to an inconsequential stimulus, responsiveness becomes greatly reduced and may disappear altogether. In contrast, complex learning is favored when feedback can be used to improve behavioral responses to subsequent occurrences of a given event. The processes by which animals learn to associate a signal with some event that will have some future impact on them is termed 'conditioning'. A familiar example is Pavlov's dogs salivating in response to a ringing bell, having learned that the sound indicates the imminent arrival of food. The most complex forms of learning demonstrate a clear understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. Some animals are able to learn that their own behavior can affect their environment - that their actions may bring about desirable events or preclude undesirable ones. Examples of events requiring complex learned responses include: foraging, predation, mate choice, parental care, and social interactions.

An animal's learning capacity can be correlated with its longevity and level of social organization. Rich learning capacities rarely appear in short-lived or solitary species. Transition toward more complex learning appears to be associated with such factors as long lifespan, hierarchical social structure, and parental care. These factors, in turn, seem to be correlated with large brain size. Further research is required to establish the neuronal foundations of cognitive constraints, particularly as they relate to an animal's ecological role. However, there can be little doubt that the nascent field of cognitive ecology will provide new insights into the mental capabilities of many animals - including the White Shark.


ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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