Thesis: Investigating the relationship between heat stress and cognition in a wild animal
Mean global temperature is rising and the frequency and intensity of heat waves are increasing with it. Global warming threatens wild animals with heat stroke and severe dehydration, what is less apparent is how it can affect their cognitive abilities. In humans, the cognitive impairment caused by heat stress is widely recognized, but it has never been studied in wild animals, despite growing evidence that individual cognitive performance can directly influence survival and reproductive success.
My research will investigate the relationship between heat stress and cognitive performance in a wild population of pied babblers (Turdoides bicolor).
Pied babblers are cooperative breeders, endemic of the semi-arid Kalahari region in Southern Africa, where the number of hot days has increased twofold over the last two decades. Previous research has demonstrated that above a critical temperature threshold pied babblers are less efficient in foraging and start to lose body mass.
I will use an array of four cognitive tasks to test adult individuals under both normal and heat stress conditions. Since cognitive development is influenced by the social environment, I will investigate the potential of social group size to act as a buffer against heat-related cognitive decline. Finally, I will use the 15-year-long individual life-history record available for the study population to explore the link between individual cognitive performance, heat wave events and life history traits, including annual reproductive success and annual survival rates.
Why my research is important
Cognition is any mechanism by which an individual acquires, processes, stores and uses information. It represents a fundamental component of an individual’s capacity to successfully navigate and flexibly respond to the physical and social environment. Therefore, understanding how heat stress can affect cognition in wild animals is crucial to enable robust predictions of how animals may adjust to changing environmental conditions.