Jean-Nicolas Audet, Ph.D. Candidate

supervisor: Dr. louis Lefebvre

Current Research

Cognitive abilities are known to vary extensively, both between and within species. Understanding the causes of the appearance and maintenance of this variation requires considering both the ultimate and proximate mechanisms behind this variation. Up to now, the link between brain evolution and cognitive abilities has been assessed rather roughly, being limited mainly to comparisons of volumetric measurements in primates and birds. Further investigation is needed to identify in the nervous system the elements responsible for animal innovativeness, a cognitive ability that is believed to increase fitness in the wild, at least under certain circumstances. In the biomedical field, a lot of data are available concerning neurobiology of cognition, particularly with respect to neurotransmitter receptors.

The aim of my thesis is to determine the molecular factors responsible for innovation in birds. Two species that share a very close common ancestor will be studied: the Barbados bullfinch (Loxigilla barbadensis) and the black-faced grassquit (Tiaris bicolor). These two sister species live sympatrically in Barbados, but differ tremendously in their behavior. While the specialist black-faced grassquit is very conservative, the generalist Barbados bullfinch is extremely opportunistic and innovative.

Barbados bullfinch performing a problem-solving task.
Photo: Louis Lefebvre

Wild-caught birds will be exposed to problem-solving and learning tasks in captivity, as a proxy for innovativeness in the wild. Then, in collaboration with Dr. Erich Jarvis at Duke University, Dr. Jon Sakata at McGill and Dr. Lauren O’Connell at Harvard University, molecular components of the brain will be identified and compared between the two species to establish a correlation between neurobiological properties and their respective cognitive abilities.

The knowledge gained in the biomedical field will be utilized to determine the origin of innovativeness in birds. More broadly, my project aims to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the intrinsic elements of the animals that enable them to modify their behavior in order to cope with changes in their habitat.

Last update: Nov. 21, 2016
Webmistress: Carole Verdone-Smith, Department of Biology