Frames of Reference

How do mobile animals encode and remember a location in space? The answer to this question may depend on the species, the sex and even the season in which it is asked. For example, scatter hoarding species appear to use different rules to encode locations than non-hoarding species. And females and males may also use different rules, based on their use of cues that inform position and cues that primarily inform direction. The parallel map theory is one model of how these two types of cues are integrated in the cognitive map.

Rodents in the family Sciuridae, squirrels are excellent subjects for the study of cognition in wild animals, both in the lab but also in the field. Most squirrels are diurnal, possessing excellent color vision, which makes them ideal subjects for studies of visuospatial encoding. Because of their wide distribution across a variety of habitats – e.g., forest, plains, desert – squirrels vary widely in the spatial problems they must solve, whether this is constructing burrows, leaping through tree canopies or controlled gliding of the nocturnal flying squirrels. Last but not least, the two most common tree squirrels in North America, the city-adapted gray and fox squirrels, are also obligate scatter hoarders, a behavior linked to specialized memory abilities and brain structures.

We are currently studying flexible cue use in tree squirrels, recently in captive flying squirrels and free-ranging campus fox squirrels.

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