Posted: February 20, 2009
What do rhesus monkeys, antlions, scrub jays, and leaf-nosed bats have in common?
All are subjects of research articles included in the March 2009 special issue of the journal Behavioural Processes (Elsevier; Volume 80, Number 3), guest-edited by Mount Holyoke's Karen L. Hollis, professor of psychology and education and chair of neuroscience and behavior.
Coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the issue is titled "Comparative Cognition in Context." The cover was designed by Hollis and Cheryl L. McGraw, senior administrative assistant in Mount Holyoke's Department of Psychology and Education. In a nod to Darwin, it features in its center an image of his first known sketch of a phylogenetic tree, depicting the evolutionary history of groups of species, with his handwritten phrase "I think" in the margin. The historical sketch is surrounded by images of the animals studied by the issue's contributing authors.
The special issue also features a research article by Lauren M. Guillette '07, Hollis, and Audrey Markarian '07, in which they examine learning in antlions, the predatory larvae of an insect that resembles a dragonfly. The team reports the first evidence that antlions can learn to anticipate prey blundering into their traps and then use this information to prepare efficiently for meals that, in nature, may be days or weeks apart.
Antlions capture their food by digging funnel-shaped pits in the sand and lying in wait for their prey to fall inside, Hollis explained; when they received vibrational cues immediately before the arrival of food, they learned to dig better pits, to extract food more efficiently, and to molt sooner.
Hollis earned the editing assignment through her postdoctoral mentor and the author of the landmark book, Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior, Sara J. Shettleworth. The latter was honored at the 2008 meeting of the International Society of Comparative Cognition for her many contributions to the study of cognitive processes in animals; as part of that recognition, a special issue of Behavioural Processes is dedicated to Shettleworth, who chose Hollis to shepherd the issue on her behalf.
In an editorial tribute to Shettleworth in the journal, Hollis wrote, "She helped to restructure the study of learning in non-human animals. She championed an ecologically nuanced view in which natural selection would be expected to influence not only what animals could learn, but also the particular conditions under which that learning might take place."
Some 35 academics from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Switzerland, and Australia contributed 16 research reports and theoretical reviews on the evolution of comparative cognition, demonstrating how animals perceive, learn about, and understand their physical and social worlds.
"This collection of articles comes from the top people in the field of comparative cognition, and several are Nature and Science authors," said Hollis. "Many of the authors are former collaborators of (Shettleworth's) on research in spatial memory and cognition, and they've continued this important line of work."
The featured articles include, among others, research on how animals use spatial cues; the relationship between food hoarding, spatial cognition, and hippocampal structure; the role of memory in past and future thinking; the neurophysiological mechanisms of spatial memory; and the cause, development, function, and evolution of animal behavior.
"People are always interested in animals and their behavior, and this issue includes papers about dogs, birds, bats, and monkeys, among others," Hollis noted. "Taken together, the articles in this issue represent the diversity of (Shettleworth's) interests and echo a major theme that has guided her research over a long and distinguished career--namely that to understand any of the cognitive abilities that an animal may possess, it is necessary to understand its ecology."
Hollis, who is also the associate editor for the journal Learning and Behavior, has been a member of the Mount Holyoke faculty since 1982. She teaches introductory psychology, animal behavior, and several seminars in the biological bases of behavior, including cognition, evolution, and behavior.