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Title: The causes and consequences of individual differences in cognitive performances in relation to the social environment in pheasants
Author: Langley, Ellis Jessica Grace
ISNI:       0000 0004 7653 5159
Awarding Body: University of Exeter
Current Institution: University of Exeter
Date of Award: 2018
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Identifying the causes and consequences of intra-specific variation in cognitive abilities is fundamental to our understanding of the evolution of cognition. The social environment and cognitive abilities appear inextricably linked, yet evidence for how the social environment affects cognitive performances and further, how cognitive performances influence the social environment, has seldom been explored. Using the pheasant, Phasianus colchicus, I explore the relationships between individual variation in cognitive performances in relation to broad and fine-scale structure of the social environment and endeavour to separate cause and consequence. I demonstrate a positive causal effect of the broad-scale social environment on cognitive performances by observing increases in the accuracy of spatial discrimination performances when individuals are in larger groups (Chapter Two and Chapter Four). I show that the positive effects of larger group size occur over a relatively short period (less than one week), suggesting that cognitive performances are flexible in response to the social environment and I suggest four potential mechanisms. I show that while males are part of a social hierarchy, spatial discrimination performances are related to this fine-scale social structure and higher-ranking males outperform lower ranking males (Chapter Three). When attempting to determine cause and consequence, I found that spatial learning performances early in life did not predict adult cognitive performances on the same task or predict their adult social rank (Chapter Four). Hence, my results do not support that social rank is a consequence of spatial learning abilities in male pheasants. The relationship between spatial learning performances and social rank was found in adult males that had their social rank artificially elevated, suggesting that cognitive performances were not simply the result of the current social environment but remain closely related to past agonistic relationships. I did not find a relationship between early life aggression with performances on either a spatial or a non-spatial task in females or males (Chapter Five). This highlights the importance of investigating early life relationships and suggests that the relationship between spatial learning and aggression in adult males may become associated over time as a consequence of further spatial learning experiences, and, or, aggressive interactions. I then demonstrate a consequence of individual variation in cognitive abilities and show that adult foraging associations in the wild disassort by early life cognitive performances (Chapter Six). Individuals with good inhibitory control performance and poor visual discrimination performances were more central in social networks. I propose that differences in cognitive abilities manifest in foraging strategy and influence the resulting social structure. The implications of this predictable social structure remain to be explored. Finally, I discuss these results and how they contribute to our understanding of how the social environment causes individual differences in cognitive performances, as well as how variation in cognitive performances may shape the social environment. I suggest the potential implications of these findings and ideas for future work.
Supervisor: Madden, Joah Sponsor: European Research Council (ERC)
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Individual differences ; Animal cognition ; Social environment ; Group size ; Social rank ; Aggression ; Spatial discrimination ; Inhibitory control ; Learning ; Visual discrimination ; Social network ; Pheasant ; Cognitive performance