Professor celebrated for cognitive research.

Karen Hollis

By Keely Savoie

Karen Hollis, a professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College, was recognized for her contributions to the study of animal cognition by the Comparative Cognition Society (CCS) during a conference on April 15 in Florida.

Hollis has spent her academic lifetime studying how learning can affect reproductive success in different animals. Early in her career, she demonstrated that fish and lizards could learn to interpret arbitrary cues that signaled a significant event (the arrival of food or the introduction of a rival) and would adapt their behavior to boost their chances of success in response.

In one series of experiments, she trained fish to associate a light with the arrival of food. Introducing the trained fish into a tank with untrained fish, she was able to see the strategies they employed, which depended on their dominance. She concluded that dominant fish would immediately swim to the area where food was expected, but subordinate fish, using the same learned cue, would sidle along more subtlely.

In another experiment where the light heralded the arrival of a potential mate, she observed that the most dominant, aggressive fish would suddenly become docile and submissive in anticipation of a mate.

Later, Hollis studied ants and antlions—two species locked in an evolutionary arms race—to determine how they used learned cues to improve their chances for survival.

Her lab currently is investigating a genetic basis for ants’ ability to rescue their nestmates from predatory antlions.

“Receiving this award was a tremendous honor,” said Hollis. “It not only reflects on the work I’ve done but the fact that, with Mount Holyoke College’s support, I have been able to work successfully at a liberal arts college, not a large research institution.”

At the CCS conference, Hollis delivered the keynote speech and attended a symposium arranged in her honor. The award was bestowed on her at a banquet ceremony attended by her colleagues from around the world.