Cognition in a social world : assessing cognitive variation by sex and dominance status in Gambusia affinis and Astatotilapia burtoni




Wallace, Kelly Jean

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Social environments are a rich landscape in which individuals must make decisions that may have lasting impacts on condition, resource acquisition (including reproductive opportunities), and ultimately fitness. Often, these decisions require cognitive processes like learned associations, memory, and spatial navigation. Different social environments facilitate cognitive performance (for example, a species with expansive and highly-delineated territories may excel at spatial learning). Within a species, social phenotype (e.g. sex, reproductive state, dominance status) can drive variation in cognition, yet this variation is less explored. Why might social phenotypes differ in cognition? This variation can be driven both by the underlying ecological pressures and by the physiological and neuromolecular mechanisms associated with social behavior and decision-making.

This dissertation expands our knowledge on the exciting and growing intersect between cognitive ecology and social neuroscience. This integration is described in a literature analysis in Chapter 1, where I first provide background on each field individually. I then describe the results of an analysis of publications over time for each field and for the subset of publications found in both fields. Lastly, I propose a set of steps for future work in this intersection, highlighting exemplary animal models and topics in this area. In the experimental chapters of my dissertation, I use a uniquely integrative approach to explore the relationship between social phenotype and cognition. In two fish species with well-characterized social dynamics (the western mosquitofish Gambusia affinis and burton’s mouthbrooder Astatotilapia burtoni, an African cichlid), I assess performance on a suite of cognitive tasks. In Chapters 2 & 3, I investigate how and why the sexes differ in cognition in the respective species. In Chapter 4 I investigate how changes in dominance status modulate cognition and behavior, integrating physiological analyses. Throughout, I employ multidimensional analyses that not only quantify performance but additionally assess cognitive style (the way an individual approaches a cognitive task, e.g. exploration, decision speed), providing a comprehensive perspective on the relationship between social behavior and cognition.


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