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Problem-solving ability and response to novelty in mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli) from different elevations

Abstract

Animals inhabiting challenging and harsh environments are expected to benefit from certain phenotypic traits including cognitive abilities. In particular, innovation and habituation are traits thought to benefit animals in challenging environments and increase individual’s probability of survival via increased foraging success. Here, we tested whether mountain chickadees from two elevations varying in winter climate severity differed in two traits involving innovation and habituation–problem-solving ability and response to novelty. Higher montane elevations are associated with a significantly longer winter period characterized by lower temperatures and more snow, making winter survival more challenging due to a probable increase in foraging demands. Mountain chickadees inhabiting the harsher high elevation were significantly faster at solving a novel problem than their low elevation counterparts. Birds from both elevations responded with increased latency to approach the novel object; however, there were no elevation-related differences. Male and female chickadees responded similarly on both tasks, suggesting no sex-related differences in problem solving ability or neophobia. The problem solving results are consistent with the results for closely related black-capped chickadees along a longitudinal gradient of winter climatic harshness on a larger geographic scale, but the response to novelty data is not. Overall, our data support the hypothesis that enhanced problem solving ability might be associated with living in harsher environments either via natural selection or by plastic response to different environments and suggest that differences in problem solving ability do not have to be associated with differences in neophobia.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to acknowledge Elena Pravosudova for help capturing birds and Shelby Brown, Frank Gonzalez, Kallie Kappes, and Emily Weissgerber for help with bird care and maintenance and University of Nevada, Reno’s EECB doctoral program for research funds. All authors were supported by NSF (IOS-1351295) to VVP.

Ethical standards

All experiments reported here comply with the current laws of the United States of America. Chickadees were collected under Federal (MB022532) and California (5210) scientific collecting permits. All animal procedures were in accordance with the University of Nevada Reno Animal Care and Use Protocol (00576).

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Correspondence to Dovid Y. Kozlovsky.

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Communicated by I. R. Hartley

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Kozlovsky, D.Y., Branch, C.L. & Pravosudov, V.V. Problem-solving ability and response to novelty in mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli) from different elevations. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 69, 635–643 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-015-1874-4

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Keywords

  • Problem solving
  • Neophobia
  • Innovation
  • Novelty
  • Environmental harshness
  • Chickadee