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Do sex differences in construction behavior relate to differences in physical cognitive abilities?


Nest-building behaviour in birds may be particularly relevant to investigating the evolution of physical cognition, as nest building engages cognitive mechanisms for the use and manipulation of materials. We hypothesized that nest-building ecology may be related to physical cognitive abilities. To test our hypothesis, we used zebra finches, which have sex-differentiated roles in nest building. We tested 16 male and 16 female zebra finches on three discrimination tasks in the following order: length discrimination, flexibility discrimination, and color discrimination, using different types of string. We predicted that male zebra finches, which select and deposit the majority of nesting material and are the primary nest builders in this species, would learn to discriminate string length and flexibility-structural traits relevant to nest building-in fewer trials compared to females, but that the sexes would learn color discrimination (not structurally relevant to nest building) in a similar number of trials. Contrary to these predictions, male and female zebra finches did not differ in their speed to learn any of the three tasks. There was, however, consistent among-individual variation in performance: learning speed was positively correlated across the tasks. Our findings suggest that male and female zebra finches either (1) do not differ in their physical cognitive abilities, or (2) any cognitive sex differences in zebra finches are more specific to tasks more closely associated with nest building. Our experiment is the first to examine the potential evolutionary relationship between nest building and physical cognitive abilities.

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We thank Tristan Eckersley for assistance in designing the experiment and breeding the birds used for the experiment, Isaac Lank for his help in setting up the equipment and experimental apparatuses, and the University of Alberta animal care staff for their work in helping care for the birds. This research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (RGPIN-2019-04733, NSERC DGECR-2019-00173), the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta, and a Start-up Grant from the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta (UOFAB SF FAC SCI). CTL was funded in part by the Alberta Graduate Excellence Scholarship from the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research of the University of Alberta.

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CTL and LMG developed and designed the experiment with input from GB and AC-A. CTL collected the data and provided bird care with help from GB and AC-A. CTL analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript with input from GB, AC-A and LMG. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Lauren M. Guillette.

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The authors declare no conflict of interest in this research. The data from this research and the code used to analyze these data are available as supplementary electronic material.

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Supplementary Information

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file3. A video showing a passing trial for each of the three discrimination tasks. (MP4 32508 kb)


Supplementary file1. The data used for the experiment in an excel file, including a key explaining the column headings for each data sheet. (XLSX 44 kb)

Supplementary file2. The R code used for the analyses. (R 7 kb)

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Lambert, C.T., Balasubramanian, G., Camacho-Alpízar, A. et al. Do sex differences in construction behavior relate to differences in physical cognitive abilities?. Anim Cogn 25, 605–615 (2022).

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  • Estrildid finches
  • Cognitive evolution
  • Comparative cognition
  • Experimental psychology
  • Individual differences
  • Intraspecific variation
  • Physical intelligence
  • Songbirds