News #28

Our manuscript mentioned earlier (see News #25) was provisionally accepted for publication in Behavioral Ecology. Authors marked with boldface are financed by a CNCSIS research grant (PN II. RU TE 291/2010).

Bókony V, Lendvai ÁZ, Vágási CI, Pătraș L, Pap PL, Németh J, Vincze E, Papp S, Preiszner B, Seress G, Liker A. Necessity or capacity? Physiological state predicts problem-solving performance in house sparrows.

Lay summary:
Innovations help animals adapt to new or altered environments. But what makes individuals innovative? Our study shows that good health is important. Problem solving success in novel food-extracting tasks was promoted by superior physiological condition in a context-specific manner in house sparrows. Birds with more antioxidants solved easy tasks faster, while birds with less stress hormones were faster in solving and learning a difficult task.

Innovative behaviors such as exploiting novel food sources can grant significant fitness benefits for animals, yet little is known about the mechanisms driving such phenomena, and the role of physiology is virtually unexplored in wild species. Two hypotheses predict opposing effects of physiological state on innovation success. On the one hand, poor physiological condition may promote innovations by forcing individuals with poor competitive abilities to invent alternative solutions. On the other hand, superior physiological condition may ensure greater cognitive capacity and thereby better problem-solving and learning performance. To test these hypotheses, we studied the behavior of wild-caught house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in four novel tasks of food acquisition, one of which was presented to the birds in repeated trials, and we investigated the relationships of individual performance with relevant physiological traits. We found that problem solving performance across the four tasks was moderately consistent within individuals. Birds with lower integrated levels of corticosterone, the main avian stress hormone, solved the most difficult task faster and were more efficient learners in the repeated task than birds with higher corticosterone levels. Birds with higher concentration of total glutathione, a key antioxidant, solved two relatively easy tasks faster, whereas birds with fewer coccidian parasites tended to solve the difficult task more quickly. Our results thus indicate that aspects of physiological state influence problem-solving performance in a context-dependent manner, and that the capacity for problem solving, such as cognitive skillfulness, is more likely to drive individual innovation success than necessity due to poor condition.

Key words: animal innovation, learning, stress physiology, oxidative status, coccidiosis

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