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Full Stream Name: Measuring the coevolution of cognition and behavioral tradeoffs in fish

Research Educator: Mary Ramsey 

Principal Investigator: Molly Cummings

Course Credit: Spring & Fall

Fish are smart!  But are some smarter than others? And what does personality and/or social interactions have to do with it?

We take a comparative approach to ask two primary questions:

(1) Do learning capabilities vary predictably between species with different types of social interactions?

In the Fish Stream, students will be introduced to the diversity of species found in the freshwater family of poeciliid fishes.  Poeciliid species can differ in color and size, but also in the complexity of their mating systems.  For example, some species have a complex mating system based on female mating preferences for distinct male types (courting vs coercive males), whereas others have a simple mating system in which females do little choosing and males do all the coercing. In the Fish Stream, we will test if there is a relationship between cognitive ability and social complexity across these different species.

(2) Is there a relationship between an individual’s learning abilities and other behavioral attributes?  Is cognitive performance linked to activity, anxiety, exploratory, mate choice, and/or sociability behaviors?

Learning is costly!  If a female fish must make a cognitive investment in learning multiple male types, does this then come at the cost of other behavioral aspects? In the Fish Stream, students will be introduced to a suite of cognition and behavioral assays to address the relationship (or possible trade-off) between learning and other behavioral traits.

Cognition is a product of evolution, and is expected to have both a physiological and behavioral price tag. In this stream, students will explore the relationship between cognitive processes (or learning capabilities) and the expression of other types of behavior. Further, we will explore whether the complexity of social interactions within a species influences a species’ cognitive abilities.

Students will conduct experiments with local and semi-wild fish populations to test how social interactions influence four spheres of animal behavior: mate choice, sociality, anxiety/exploration, and general learning ability.

Our Fish Stream offers students a fully integrative science experience to determine whether differences in social landscapes or complexity across species results in predictive learning and behavioral differences. Students will acquire analytical skills while designing, conducting and quantifying behavioral experiments. Students continuing in the summer and fall will further investigate proximate mechanisms underlying behavioral differences by studying the neurogenomic patterns within the brain that are associated with cognitive processes.

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