CE02 - Terre vivante

Cognition in a changing world: exploring the evolutionary potential of cognitive abilities in the wild – EVOL-COG

Submission summary

Cognitive abilities are thought to be at the heart of behavioural flexibility, driving the potential for individuals to quickly respond to environmental changes. Among these cognitive abilities, innovation, learning and inhibition show high variation between species, and comparative studies suggest that they drive species’ ability to optimally cope with environmental spatio-temporal variation. However, we currently know very little about whether these cognitive abilities show adaptive within-species variation and can evolve in response to selective pressures in changing environments. This information is nonetheless essential to understand how the evolutionary potential of cognitive abilities in the wild shapes the rapid adaptation of populations to past, but also current, human-induced, environmental changes. Like any trait, assessing the evolutionary potential of cognitive abilities in the wild requires understanding (i) the variation of these abilities among- and within-individuals, (ii) their links with individual fitness components and the causal mechanisms underlying these links and (iii) their heritability. Current knowledge gaps on all three points prevent a critical understanding of the importance of cognitive abilities in shaping adaptation in a changing world Using two complementary passerine model systems in the field, we will address these three knowledge gaps to provide a comprehensive understanding of sources and adaptive consequences of variation in innovation, learning and inhibition. We will implement powerful approaches, in particular experiments, state-ofthe-art mixed capture-recapture models and large-scale within- and among-population comparisons to significantly advance our understanding of the evolutionary potential of these main cognitive abilities in a changing world. The project is structured in three research objectives: Objective 1. Quantifying inter- and intra-individual variation in cognitive abilities in contrasted environmental conditions to provide insights into the adaptive value of this variation - We will first investigate temporal (within-population) and spatial (among-populations) fluctuations of cognitive abilities, and their link with environmental conditions, and second explore age-related individual variation in cognitive abilities (cognitive senescence), using repeated measures for the same individuals within our main study population. Objective 2. Unravelling the causal behavioural and physiological mechanisms linking cognitive abilities to fitness - We will first test whether cognitive abilities shape individuals’ efficiency in using information, exploiting habitat and provisioning their nestlings using a series of experiments, and second explore whether cognitive abilities and fitness may also be indirectly linked via a third latent variable, such as ageing and oxidative stress. Objective 3. Obtaining unbiased estimates of the heritability of innovation and learning - We will develop and implement models combining multi-state capture-recapture and quantitative genetics approaches to estimate unbiased heritability levels in innovation and learning by accounting for imperfect individual detection and its potential heterogeneity among individuals in the wild. To achieve these aims, we will combine inputs from the fields of cognition, behavioural and evolutionary ecology, ecophysiology and biostatistics, with the complementary expertise of the five partners involved. By the end of this project we will know in unprecedented details to which extent cognitive abilities vary among and within populations and within individuals, whether cognitive abilities can respond to selection, and what mechanisms link cognition to fitness. By moving us considerably beyond typical studies of cognition in the wild, this project will therefore strongly contribute to address the currently open question of the evolutionary potential of cognitive abilities in response to environmental variation.

Project coordination


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


BioSP Biostatistique et Processus Spatiaux
McGill University / Department of Biology
University of Aberdeen / School of Biological Sciences, Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences
IPHC Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien - IPHC (UMR 7178)

Help of the ANR 565,573 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2019 - 48 Months

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