Ecological trade-offs in the evolution of cognition

Theme: Biodiversity & Ecology

Primary Supervisor:

Elli Leadbeater

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

Elli Leadbeater's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Steve Portugal

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

Steve Portugal's Profile Picture
Additional Supervisor(s):

Project Description:

Investment in cognitive traits, such as learning and memory, is expected to yield fitness benefits through better decision-making, producing behavior that is fine-tuned to the local environment. Yet the fact that animals vary in their cognitive abilities, both between and within species, suggests that such investment comes at a significant cost. We currently understand little about what these costs are, because it is difficult to manipulate cognitive abilities, and thus any relationship with other traits is by nature correlational. In this project, we will capitalize upon recent developments in insect cognitive neuroscience to overcome this problem, using a uniquely tractable experimental system (the bumblebee Bombus terrestris). We will focus upon (1) metabolic costs of investment in cognition (2) potential evolutionary trade-offs with immune function (3) impacts on life-history variables. In the latter stages of the project, there will be the opportunity for the student to develop further research questions according to their interests, which may include (but are not limited to) the use of transcriptomics to understand the genomic basis for cognitive investment.

The project will involve behavioural and physiological work based in our lab at Royal Holloway, with support from the large team of researchers in our research group who are involved in our umbrella project “Intelligence in the Wild: the evolutionary consequences of cognition”. There will also be opportunities for summer campus-based fieldwork, according the the student’s specific interests.

Policy Impact of Research:

Bombus terrestris is a key UK pollinator, and understanding how cognitive abilities contribute to fitness in bees is particularly timely, given that impairment of cognitive function has been implicated as a proximate mechanism for sub-lethal effects of pesticides on bee colonies.

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