What is behavioral flexibility and is it a mechanism for surviving in new environments?
Behavioral flexibility, the ability to adapt behavior to new circumstances, is thought to play an important role in a species' ability to successfully adapt to new environments and expand its geographic range. However, flexibility is rarely directly tested in species in a way that would allow us to determine how flexibility works and predict a species' ability to adapt their behavior to new environments. I use great-tailed grackles (an urban bird) as a model to investigate this question because they have rapidly expanded their range into North America over the past 140 years. In Santa Barbara, I found that they are behaviorally flexible and that flexibility is independent from problem solving ability, problem solving speed (Logan 2016a), other behaviors (Logan 2016b), and innovativeness (Logan 2016c), and that grackles can solve some problems with a similar efficiency to New Caledonian crows (Logan et al. 2014).
I am currently investigating how great-tailed grackles are able to rapidly expand their geographic range by testing their behavior, immunity, hormones, parasites, and population genetics in two populations: an older and a newer population. So far, we found that we can manipulate flexibility through serial reversal learning and that this manipulation makes individuals more flexible and more innovative in a new context (a puzzlebox). We also found that reversal learning (a measure of flexibility) positively correlates with performance on the go/no go task (a measure of inhibition), and has no relationship with detour performance (a measure of inhibition) or causal cognition (there was no evidence of causal cognition, though this could be due to our experimental design). Contrary to most bird species studied so far, great-tailed grackles show male-biased dispersal. We discovered the second case of male parental care in great-tailed grackles and are seeing this behavior in multiple locations. The one male-juvenile pair we were able to catch showed that they are not genetically related, indicating that the caring male was not contributing to his direct fitness and instead might perform this behavior as a result of uncertain paternity or as a signal to future mates.
I co-founded a global network of researchers with field sites to investigate hypotheses that involve generalizing across many individuals. We conduct the same tests in the same way across species to determine whether the results of particular experiments are generalizable beyond that species. We are manipulating behavioral flexibility in species that are successful in human modified environments (great-tailed grackles and blue jays) and in endangered species (Florida scrub-jays and toutouwai) to determine whether an increase in flexibility improves their success in human modified environments. Follow the link to learn about our open, verifiable, and replicable workflow that makes our research better and faster.