Cognition and behavioural flexibility

We investigate how early social and ecological experiences influence learning ability and behavioural flexibility in cichlids. In particular we aim to test whether variability and predictability of the early environment as well as environmental complexity shape cognition and behavioural flexibility. We predict that variable, but unpredictable environmental conditions boost learning and memory, and the development of the underlying neural ‘hardware’. Further growing up in environments with higher social complexity, characterized by more and more diverse types of social interactions, favours higher behavioural flexibility.

In the mouthbrooding cichlid Simochromis pleurospilus we found that only a single, but substantial change of the early ecology, has life-long effects on learning ability. Switching the food rations from high to low or low to high during early life improved learning ability, whereas maintaining constant early high or low rations led to lower learning performance.

Neolamprologus pulcher exhibits variable degrees of sociality, and they have reproductive DoL, with a very strong bias of reproduction to the dominant breeder pair, and DoL between all group members with respect to the duties in brood care and territory defence and maintenance. Currently, we develop a set of cognitive tests for this species, ranging from simple binary associative learning tasks, in which fish have to discriminate two colours, one where a food rewards is accessible, and one where it is not (see videos below), to tests of behavioural flexibility (reversal learning, set-shifting) or more complex task requiring transitive inference, or social learning. We aim to compare the performance in these tests between fish which grew up with different sociol early-life conditions. We further aim to test which, downstream effect cognitive abilities have on social organisation, level of sociality and division of labour (DoL).

Principal investigator: Barbara Taborsky

Sample publications

Bannier, F. Tebbich, S. & Taborsky, B. (2017): Early experience affects learning performance and neophobia in a cooperatively breeding cichlid. Ethology, 123, 712-723.

Kotrschal, A. & Taborsky, B. (2010): Environmental change enhances cognitive abilities in fish. PLoS Biology, 8(4): e1000351. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000351

Colour discrimination task: Blue is the rewarded colour, yellow is blocked and cannot be accessed (video by Maria Reyes-Contreras).
N. pulcher in a colour reversal task: Here yellow is rewarded (accessible) and blue is unrewarded. After making its choice, the fish rammed the plastic chip in the tank wall to get rid of it (video by Maria Reyes-Contreras).