In the last century, a large number of studies have experimentally investigated cognitive skills across animals, providing us with a vast dataset on the distribution of specific cognitive skills across taxa. By comparing cognitive skills across species, researchers may evidence variation in problem-solving abilities and better understand the proximate processes leading to the emergence of complex cognition. Moreover, a comparative approach allows researchers to understand the evolutionary challenges linked to the emergence of specific skills, shedding light into the evolutionary origins of human cognition. This approach uniquely allows addressing questions about the uniqueness of human cognition and its evolutionary endowment, and it is therefore crucial for researchers spanning from comparative and developmental psychology to evolutionary biology and psychology.
In my project, I will work on ungulates, which are an ideal model to test, as they show an impressive variety of socio-ecological characteristics like dietary breadth, predation level, group size, fission-fusion sociality or domestication level. By testing different species, I will assess which socio-ecological characteristics are linked to enhanced performance in different cognitive tasks, while controlling for intra-specific variation (in terms of sex, age, rank, sociality, personality). By directly comparing their performance with the same battery of ecologically valid cognitive tasks, I will be able to understand which evolutionary forces likely led to the emergence of these skills.