Research

How do different animal species learn about the world and process its vast environmental complexity from infancy? I am interested in how different physical and social learning strategies evolve and interact with each other, depending on the problem the individual is faced with. I believe taking an interdisciplinary approach is important to provide a more complete answer to any research question (e.g. integrate animal cognition with developmental psychology and artificial intelligence). 

I recently finished my PhD on sensory and cognitive adaptations of exploratory learning under Dr. Jackie Chappell at the University of Birmingham.  I graduated from the University of Bristol with a BSc (Joint Hons) in Psychology & Zoology, where my final year project focussed on flight speeds and optimal foraging in swarming bats under the supervision of Dr. Marc Holderied.  Previously I have also looked at bats in the field by assisting Danielle Linton at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford.  Other research that I am excited to have been a part of was with the Foundacion Espiritu del Bosque, under the careful eye of Dr. Armando Castellanos.  Finally but certainly not least, I completed a small research project at the Animal Behaviour & Welfare Group at the Bristol School of Veterinary Science. It was under the supervision of Prof. Mike Mendl and Dr. Oliver Burman, into a novel approach to the assessment of affective states in captive animals using successive negative contrast. 


Sensory and cognitive adaptations of exploratory learning

My 4-year project started in 2008 and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). I capitalised on the strong exploratory and manipulatory tendencies of parrots to investigate their mechanisms of learning about objects and affordances. First, controlled laboratory experiments were used to test parrots' abstract knowledge about the physical properties of objects and physical laws. If parrots rely upon associative learning alone to overcome a problem then they would learn only task-specific solutions. If, however, parrots understand abstract physical and causal principles governing one task, they may be able to transfer these principles flexibly to novel tasks that require the use of similar principles. Furthermore, parrots are highly social birds, so it is possible that individuals could acquire a functional understanding of a task just through observation of a skilled demonstrator performing the same task. In order to test this, similar experiments were performed in a social learning context to see if the parrots' functional understanding differs in quality or extent from individuals that have previously performed the task itself.

The second component of the project investigated the ontogeny of physical cognition by breeding parakeets (red-fronted kakariki Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae) in captivity and studying the development of their cognitive abilities through a series of tests administered at regular intervals throughout the nestling and juvenile period. In addition, one group of juveniles were exposed to an 'enriched' physical environment to determine whether the developmental environment could modify either the timing of the stages of cognitive development, or the eventual sophistication of the individual's cognitive abilities. In addition, comparable experiments may be conducted in the field on feral populations of ring-necked parakeets Psittacula krameri found in south-east England to establish whether competence on physical cognition tasks varies between individuals hatched in the wild and in captivity.

I am also working with Prof. Graham Martin to investigate the sensory foundations of exploration in parrots, particularly how the cross-modal interaction of the parrot visual field and the tactile bill tip organ inform the individual about the surrounding environment.  Additionally, I am collaborating with several people in the School of Computer Sciences, especially Veronica Arriola-Rios and Prof. Aaron Sloman, looking at the cognitive processes and internal representations involved in simple explorative tasks.  I am also running comparative studies with human adults and children with Dr. Sarah Beck in the Developmental Group at the School of Psychology.


Flight speeds, optimal foraging and social interaction in swarming bats

Wing shape profoundly influences an animal's flight performance. Based on its particular size and wing shape, aerodynamic theory allows predictions of a species' energy expenditure as a function of flight speed. Such species-specific power versus flight speed profiles are U-shaped, with slow and fast flight being more costly than flight at intermediate speeds. Particularly relevant are the speed of minimum power (at which staying airborne is cheapest) and the maximum range speed (at which an animal can travel farthest with a given amount of fuel). Optimal foraging theory predicts that animals will fly at speeds such that the costs for flight are traded against the benefit, e.g. because they encounter more food when flying faster. In previous measurements, foraging bats were flying close to their species-specific minimum power speed, while commuting bats were flying close to their maximum range speed. However, even flight speeds of many British bat species are largely unknown, in particular in bats of the genus Myotis.  Moreover, little is known about swarming behaviour present a month or so before hibernation.  Thus it is predicted that the flight speeds will be different again, perhaps as the bats take into account various social factors.

With the method of acoustic flight path tracking using two microphone arrays, it has become relatively easy to measure flight speeds in the natural habitat. In this project I will measure some flight speeds of British bat species in the field and also analyse recordings that are already available, in particular for the genus Myotis. I will then use published data on these species' flight morphology for aerodynamic calculations and compare predicted values with my measured flight speeds. Field recordings will take place at a swarming site near Bath, which is visited by several bat species at night (Box Quarry). It will also be interesting to compare the calls both inside and outside the cave at different times over the course of several evenings.  I will also identify species using the bats' often species-specific echolocation calls.


A novel approach to assessment of affective states in animals using successive negative contrast

Although the predominant focus in welfare research has been on identifying negative emotional states of animals in captivity, it is increasingly recognised that promotion of positive emotional states is also important.  New cognitive-based measures may provide better ways for assessing animal emotion and animal welfare.

I therefore tested the hypothesis that being in a background positive emotional state will reduce either the strength or the duration of the successive negative contrast (SNC) effect which is akin to 'disappointment'.  Consummatory SNC occurs, for example, when rats shifted from access to an anticipated 32% sugar solution to a less sweet 4% solution, consume less compared to rats that always receive the 4% solution.  Using rats on this paradigm, putative positive emotional state was induced by various environments (e.g. low light levels, digging arena, the playback of positive ultrasonic rat vocalisations), but did not cause the hypothesised change in SNC. On the basis of current results, is difficult to conclude whether my hypothesis was incorrect, or whether induction of positive state in the rats was unsuccessful.  Nonetheless, results did confirm that the novel methodological techniques were highly useful.


Bat activity patterns and habitat use in lowland UK farmland

Surprisingly little is known about bats inhabiting environments modified by humans.  Their natural behaviour must surely be modified by these changes, or perhaps they have adapted well to our presence.  An idea of their population sizes from different species' prevalence at different times during the night from when they emerge in the spring to just before hibernation in the autumn would also be most interesting.  It has been suggested that certain natural features, such as streams or small patches of forest, should be preserved in farmland to in turn preserve their resident bat populations.  Moreover, the possible environmental and climatic effects on bat activity patterns is virtually unknown.

Fieldwork involved walking and driving planned transect routes across farmland sites around Oxfordshire (and surrounding counties).  This was as part of ongoing research into habitat use by various bat species.  I assisted in monitoring bat activity and recording environmental conditions.  Back in the office, I also aided in sound and statistical analysis of echolocation calls.


Andean Bear conservation and rehabilitation

This project is part of the Fundacion Espiritu del Bosque (meaning "Spirit of the Forest"), and is based in Ecuador.  Their goal is to save the Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) from extinction through in-field scientific studies and through the rehabilitation and release of captive bears. They hope to improve human understanding of these gentle creatures by gathering data on Andean bear diet, behaviours and social interaction.

I was involved in monitoring both wild and rehabilitated bears, by direct observation and through the use of radio tracking equipment., as well as in the capture of the studied bears and with general data analysis.  There are preliminary results from the radio-telemetry study of this species in the fragmented landscape in the Intag region, northwestern Ecuador.  The results presented refer to six bears (4 females and 2 males) that were captured using 'Iznachi'¯ traps and outfitted with motion-sensitive transmitter collars. The bears were radio tracked between 2001 and 2004.  The females seem to have small and established home ranges, while the males move much more widely and rapidly over large, often inaccessible areas.  Much intraspecific tolerance was shown, as there was extensive home range overlap.  Moreover, the bears were more active in the day than at night.  However, the bears did not appear to have long periods of deep sleep at night, as they also required short naps during the day.  Finally, it has been shown that the males use natural movement corridors, especially along ravines.  These movements allow males to link isolated subpopulations, otherwise separated by large distances, but this may also bring the males into conflict with local farming communities.

© Zoe Demery 2012