Learning to conserve: what animal cognition can do for conservation

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By Dr Claudia Martina, Department of Anthopology, UCL & Institute of Zoology, ZSL

In recent years, we have witnessed how the natural environment has been modified to accommodate the needs of the ever-growing human population, with potentially devastating effects. Fortunately, we have a wealth of knowledge and tools with which to fight and mitigate the effects of environmental change. Backed by years of scientific data detailing the evolution, adaptation and behaviour of animals in their natural environment, multidisciplinary collaborations stand to make significant contributions towards conservation efforts. One such discipline, is animal cognition.

Our next ZSL Science and Conservation Event on Tuesday 14 May 2019 will explore how cognitive behavior can be incorporated into conservation efforts, with talks from Dr. Alex Thornton, Professor Graham Martin and Robert Harland.

An elephant is seen walking next to a small tourist town in Etosha Park, Namibia

Historically, animal cognition was defined from an anthropocentric viewpoint, however we now recognise animals to be capable of sophisticated and advanced cognitive abilities, similar to many of our own.  The word “cognition” is often associated with arduous tests that determine whether an individual has x or y ability; and for the most part, this has been a prominent aim of cognitive science. But let’s consider what any cognitive behaviour involves: the acquisition, processing and storage of information from the environment. This process determines most animal behaviour, and is key to their survival.

How is this relevant to conservation? Well, take squirrels for example. Squirrels are known food-hoarders, collecting food from several sources to store in a specific location for later retrieval. This requires squirrels to remember multiple locations with food, as well as the location of their hoard. To do so, they rely on numerous cues from their environment; however, an environment that suffers rapid change might result in the loss of important information necessary for survival. Thus, investigating cognitive mechanisms, alongside the manner in which animals acquire and process sensory information, can be useful to develop successful conservation strategies.

A grey squirrel looks for food in a London park

In the UK, the native population of red squirrels is threatened, largely due to the introduction of grey squirrels in the 1870s. An excellent paper by Starkey & del Barco-Torrillo, published this year, details a project aiming to recover red squirrel populations by providing them with supplementary feeders. How squirrels learn the location of feeders, or learn to discriminate between empty and full feeders, is evidence that cognitive processes may be key to establishing successful long-term conservation practices; while differences in cognitive abilities between red and grey squirrels, may be an additional aspect that could become useful for the management of both populations.

Some of the greatest applications of cognitive practices have been on the welfare of animals in human-care. Keepers and scientists alike often rely on popular cognitive processes such as positive reinforcement to ensure the success of husbandry practices, habitat enrichment and scientific research. ZSL’s own Animal Training and Behaviour group has immensely contributed to the latter by training African wild dogs, an endangered species, to accept radio-tracking collars that collect useful data about pack movements.

A zoo keeper uses positive reinforcement to train a wild dog into accepting a tracking collar

Compared to captivity, where successful conservation projects are relatively common, other habitats present a different sort of problem. From chacma baboons in Southern Africa to foxes in London, the emergence of “nuisance species” in cities is a cause of concern for conservationists. Yet, this presents a valuable opportunity for collaborative work between conservationists and cognitive scientists, as these animal species show cognitive and behavioural adjustments which may mitigate human-animal conflicts.

Several chacma baboons share a water source with a heard of domestic goats

To protect and conserve global biodiversity, it will be necessary to incorporate multiple areas of discipline. Animal cognition is a substantial field with decades of research, and important developments in recent years, such as research into how information spreads through the social network of a population and social learning. This research will prove highly relevant in future conservation efforts, as it could facilitate the adoption of a given behaviour in a population. Yet, for conservation to be successful, we cannot rely solely on changing the behaviour of animals, we must also consider how our actions change the environment we share with them.

Join us on 14 May to find out how animal cognition can be used for conservation practices

Please contact Eleanor Darbey at eleanor.darbey@ioz.ac.uk or +44 (0) 20 7449 6227 if you have any queries regarding our Science and Conservation Events.


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