Is a dog smarter than a fish? The answer appears obvious, but why is that the case? Researchers in the cognitive, or brain, sciences ponder this question of how different animals think. While land animals generally are able to see over a 100 times more through air than fish through water, vision alone is not enough to explain the greater cognitive abilities of land animals compared to their aquatic counterparts in 2D environments. 

In their recent paper in Nature Communications, Northwestern University PhD student Ugurcan Mugan and Professor Malcolm MacIver explore how landscapes may have influenced land animal cognitive development and their ability to plan different scenarios. Mugan and MacIver developed computer simulations to simulate how prey hide from predators as they try to reach an end location in environments ranging from uncluttered (e.g. open grasslands) to cluttered (e.g. dense forests). They incorporated several complex algorithms to model animal behavior. In open grassland-type or dense-forest type environments, prey are able to elude predators through classic habits such as retreating away from open areas, running fast through open environments, or taking cover under forests. This behavior is known as habit-based thinking, because animals act on prior experience, instead of plan-based thinking where animals think about how their actions can result in different outcomes.

However in complex environments that have both open and cluttered areas, prey that use predictable behavior and have more habit-based thinking are less likely to survive compared to prey that plan their routes and are able to predict or rapidly change their behavior more. Relating their simulation results to real-life animal and ecological data, Mugan and MacIver suggest that this type of complex landscape helped terrestrial animals develop planning circuitry neurons in their brains. Therefore, living in complex terrestrial environments and being able to see more in land than water might explain why scientists see more neuronal cognitive ability in terrestrial brains than in aquatic brains.

Mugan and MacIver’s insight into the importance of landscape is just one of the many factors that affected how land animals were able to evolve cognitively. However, their conclusion has serious implications on our changing world today. Changing landscapes and environments in today’s climate may have significant consequences in the cognitive evolution of animals of the future–if environments become more simple and open, organisms will not continue to develop advanced cognitive abilities.

Managing Correspondent: Eesha Khare

Press Article: How the geometry of ancient habitats may have influenced human brain evolution

Original Article: Nature Communications 2020: Spatial planning with long visual range benefits escape from visual predators in complex naturalistic environments

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4 thoughts on “Complex landscapes affect animal cognitive evolution

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