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Spatial cognition in the gerbil: computing optimal escape routes from visual threats

Abstract

Previous studies in our laboratory have shown that when presented with a sudden stimulus simulating an oncoming predator, Mongolian gerbils can compute the optimal trajectory to a safe refuge, taking into account the position of the threat, the location of a clearly visible refuge, and several other contextual variables as well. In the present studies, the main goal was to explore the abilities of gerbils to use mental representations of spaces that were visually occluded by opaque barriers to compute efficient escape trajectories. In all studies, gerbils were placed into a round open field containing a single refuge. On each trial, an overhead visual stimulus was caused to ‘fly’ overhead, eliciting robust escape movements from the gerbils. By manipulating the shape and position of a series of opaque barriers that were interposed between the gerbils and the refuge, we were able to show that gerbils can compute the shortest route to an invisible target, even when the available routes to the target are made complex by using elaborate barrier shapes. These findings suggest that gerbils can maintain representations of their locations with respect to salient environmental landmarks and refuges, even when such locations are not continuously visible.

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Correspondence to Colin G. Ellard.

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Ellard, C.G., Eller, M.C. Spatial cognition in the gerbil: computing optimal escape routes from visual threats. Anim Cogn 12, 333–345 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-008-0193-9

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-008-0193-9

Keywords

  • Spatial cognition
  • Predator avoidance
  • Gerbil