International Student Symposium on Animal Behaviour and Cognition

May 17 - 20, 2021 | Western University, London, ON, Canada

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Postdocs are often under-represented in academia, but are highly trained personnel who deserve more celebration! Thus, one of the goals of our symposium this year is to celebrate postdocs by inviting them as our plenary speakers.


Dr. Natalia de Souza Albuquerque, Institute of Psychology of the University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

Photo of Dr. Natalia de Souza

“Emotional and social regulation in capuchin monkeys”
Monday, May 17th 10:00 AM EST or 14:00 (2:00 PM) GMT/UTC

The experience, expression and perception of emotions are integrated with mostly every process in our brain and body. Emotions have two main roles: individual and social. That is, emotions enable self-regulation, allowing the evaluation and appropriate reaction to distinct situations, and social regulation, allowing the transmission of ecologically relevant information. Thus, emotions drive the behaviour of organisms according to the way they perceive and relate to their environment. Emotions are a key factor to understanding behaviour and cognition. In fact, the way animals perceive and react to their physical and social world is critical for understanding the differences and similarities among individuals, populations and species. When considering social animals, emotional and social regulation sustain the appearance and maintenance of social behaviour, including maternal behaviour, affiliative and agonistic episodes and the social relationships between infants and the members of their group. These emotional processes will provide individuals with a toolkit to interact with the world. For animals such as capuchin monkeys (Sapajus spp.), who show a slow development and an extended infancy, compared to other non-human primates, the social environment is frequently changing and an individual must learn to regulate their feelings and their actions in order to succeed within a group. The means of responding to the surroundings will develop throughout life, and that is why studying not only adults, but also infants is extremely informative. Moreover, more studies in the wild with free populations must be considered and pursued, as much of these more subtle yet more complex interactions and mechanisms will only occur in the animals’ natural habitat.

“Regulação emocional e social em macacos prego”

Experiência, expressão e percepção de emoções estão integradas a praticamente todos os processos do nosso cérebro e do nosso corpo. Emoções possuem dois papeis principais: individual e social. Elas concedem ao indivíduo a capacidade de auto-regulação, permitindo a avaliação e a reação apropriada a diversas situações, e a capacidade de regulação social, que permite a transmissão de informação ecologicamente relevante. Assim, emoções direcionam o comportamento dos organismos de acordo com a forma como eles percebem e se relacionam com o ambiente. Emoções são um fator chave para entender comportamento e cognição. De fato, a forma como os animais percebem e reagem ao seu mundo físico e social é fator crítico para entender as diferenças e similaridades entre indivíduos, populações e espécies. Quando falamos de animais sociais, regulação emocional e social sustentam o aparecimento e a manutenção do comportamento social, incluindo o comportamento materno, episódios afiliativos e agonísticos e as relações sociais entre infantes e suas mães e outros membros do seu grupo. Esses processos emocionais vão prover aos indivíduos um toolkit para interagir com o mundo. Para animais como os macacos pregos (Sapajus spp.), que apresentam um desenvolvimento lento e uma infância estendida, em comparação a outros primatas não humanos, o ambiente social muda frequentemente e um indivíduo precisa aprender a regular suas emoções e ações para ter sucesso dentro de um grupo. A maneira de responder aos arredores vai desenvolver ao longo da vida, e é por isso que estudar não apenas adultos mas também infantes é extremamente informativo. Além disso, mais estudos na natureza com populações de vida livre precisam ser considerados e incentivados, uma vez que muitas dessas interações e mecanismos mais sutis porém mais complexos apenas ocorrem no habitat natural dos animais.


Dr. Judit Abdai, MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group, Budapest, Hungary

Photo of Dr. Judit Abdai

“Dog-robot interactions - A novel approach to study social behaviour”
Tuesday, May 18th 10:00 AM EST or 14:00 (2:00 PM) UTC

Recent technological developments have opened up novel possibilities in the investigation of animal behaviour and cognition by allowing the use of remote controlled and self-propelled objects as social partners. Artificial agents enable to carry out highly repeatable, reproducible and controlled experiments. The dog is an important model species to understand the evolution of social behaviour, including human social cognition; however, the presence and behaviour of the dog/human partner can elicit bias in dogs (e.g. expectation based on prior experience). Studies on dog-robot interaction can also provide novel insight into the design of social robots for animal/human-robot interactions. Our main goals are to identify behaviours that are important to accept a robot as a meaningful, long-term social partner, and we apply the dog-robot interaction framework to study social behaviour and cognition of dogs. In a series of studies, we investigated (1) whether simple behaviours can elicit the perception of robots as animate objects; (2) whether dogs tend to engage in communicative and problem solving interactions with a robot; and (3) whether robots can elicit social bias in dogs. Across studies, we found that dogs perceived inanimate objects as animate based on simple motion cues, they engaged in various interactions with artificial agents, and the robot was able to elicit counterproductive choice in dogs. Overall, dogs displayed similar social behaviour toward interactive artificial agents, as in social interactions with humans. These findings provide promising basis for future studies by offering a novel perspective to investigate behaviour and cognition of non-human animals, and they contribute to design the behaviour of social robots capable of engaging in complex communicative and cooperative interactions with social agents (e.g. dogs or humans).


Dr. Rowan McGinley, St. Louis University, Missouri, USA

Photo of Dr. Rowan McGinley

“Contests in Context: Causes, Costs and Correlations”
Wednesday, May 19th 11:00 AM EST or 15:00 (3:00 PM) GMT/UTC

Contests over limited resources are commonplace and widespread across animal taxa. Rather than unconstrained fighting, animals are expected to adopt strategies that reduce contest costs. One such strategy is mutual assessment, where each rival performs ritualised signals of fighting ability or resource holding potential (RHP), allowing animals to cost-effectively determine which is weaker. However, as assessment itself may also be costly or difficult, an alternative strategy to limit the costs associated with contests may be for rivals to persist until they reach an internal cost-threshold. Each strategy allows for determination of the winner while limiting the costs of fighting. Jumping spiders, with their excellent vision, elaborate displays and dangerous weapons present excellent models for the study of decision making in animal contests. In this talk I will introduce you to an Australian jumping spider, Servaea incana, and examine the decision rules used in male-male contests. Size is a strong predictor of contest outcome and correlations between size and levels of contest escalation suggest that smaller spiders are less willing to escalate, regardless of opponent size. This suggests the use of internal thresholds rather than mutual assessment. Video playback experiments reveal that visual assessment of opponent size may influence the decision to display towards or approach an opponent. The potential for injury, or even death, may explain the unwillingness of small spiders to engage in escalated contests.


Dr. Caroline Strang, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA

Photo of Dr. Caroline Strang

“Flexibility and foraging: The cognitive mechanisms of flower handling in bumblebees”
Wednesday, May 19th 14:00 (2:00 PM) EST or 18:00 (6:00 PM) GMT/UTC

Foraging bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) extract nectar and pollen from a wide variety of morphologically distinct flower species, referred to as flower handling. This behaviour is learned and acquisition of multiple flower handling techniques is a demonstration of behavioural flexibility. My research on flower handling has three goals, (1) identify the cognitive mechanisms that support flower handling learning, (2) understand how bumblebees avoid interference costs between multiple handling techniques, and (3) explore how exposure to agrochemicals impacts flower handling. To address these goals, I used a laboratory model of flower handling and adapted the apparatus to measure bees’ ability to switch between two handling tasks, representing different flower morphologies. All bees demonstrate the same repertoire of motor behaviours in initial trials on the flower handling task and improve across trials by increasing or decreasing the frequency of these behaviours depending on their success and reinforcement. These findings support a combination of innate motor patterns and learned associations as the mechanism through which bumblebees are able to forage successfully on a variety of flower species. Exposure to a commonly used agrochemical results in a dose dependent reduction in bumblebees’ ability to improve on the flower handling task, and specifically impacts their ability to switch from using an unsuccessful motor behaviour to a successful one. Bumblebees are able to achieve remarkable behavioural flexibility when foraging through a simple cognitive mechanism, and the successful use of that mechanism is susceptible to disruption from anthropogenic factors.