Volume 19: pp. 9-13

The Future of Comparative Cognition? Conservation!

Heidi E. Harley, Peter F. Cook, and Gordon B. Bauer

New College of Florida

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The field of comparative cognition is in a good position to support conservation efforts in a quickly changing world. Given that cognition is central to real-time adaptation, we have a responsibility to advocate for the often-overlooked relevance of our expertise in helping animals cope. To contribute we recommend (a) increasing our own understanding of the ecological validity of our work, (b) translating the value and relevance of our work for others, and (c) making ourselves available to conservation managers.

Keywordsconservation, animal cognition, ecological validity

Author Note Heidi E. Harley, New College of Florida Department of Social Sciences, 5800 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, FL 34243.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Heidi E. Harley at harley@ncf.edu

As climate and habitats change, animals are on the move. Suddenly seahorses are in the Gulf of Maine (Jones, 2018). How are these animals adapting? How do they make and manage these transitions? How do humans manage these transitions? Currently both humans and other animals are grappling with these challenges, and comparative psychologists have a role to play in supporting conservation goals for in situ animals.

Most conservation management plans are created by biologists, government agency officials trained in biology and policy, and, often, public stakeholders. Conservation biologists who are well trained in population management techniques and in analyzing the functions of behaviors of wild animals frequently gloss over underlying mechanisms, including cognitive mechanisms such as those associated with memory and decision-making, as well as individual differences in animals’ strategies and outcomes. For example, an animal management agency official told one of us, “I’ve never looked at a laboratory study in any conservation decision I’ve ever made.” This approach has left a hole in conservation science—a hole that comparative psychologists can help fill.

As comparative psychologists, we know that learning and cognition processes provide real-time adaptation systems for flexible responses as one’s world changes. But we may not know how relevant our ex situ animal models are to their in situ counterparts, especially as those counterparts face ever-mounting problems in the wild. Whose job is it to tie these contexts together? We believe it is ours as comparative psychologists, but we acknowledge that to get a seat at the conservation table we need to (a) increase our own understanding of the ecological validity of our work, (b) translate the value and relevance of our work for others interested in conservation, and (c) make ourselves available to conservation managers when they are creating their plans.

Ecological Validity

Many studies with ex situ animals occur in such strongly constrained contexts that they predict the same species’ in situ behaviors with little fidelity (e.g., Augustsson et al., 2005; Hosey, 2005; Kalcounis-Rueppell et al., 2010; Klaus & Amrein, 2012; Palagi & Bergman, 2021; Stryjek et al., 2012). However, in other studies/contexts, laboratory and field scientists have provided data crucial to helping humans help wild animals facing environmental challenges.

Investigations of noise and their application to wild marine mammal behavior and policy offered a research model for applying comparative cognition to conservation. In this case, psychophysical laboratory studies provided measurement of hearing sensitivity via audiograms, critical bands and other estimates of the ability to hear in noise, sound localization, minimum angles of resolution, echolocation, other phonations, and communication. Field researchers, using the same vocabulary, measured background noise levels and acoustic events (e.g., noise from ships/boats, side-scan sonar, drilling) in marine mammal habitats and determined the degree to which these events affected marine mammal behavior, including communication, health, and mortality. This information, made available to government bodies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), affected policy decisions through committees that included bioacousticians, animal behavior experts, and people from related disciplines. (See Houser et al., 2010, for a descriptive sample of this kind of work.)

Of course, many aspects of cognition are less immediately accessible than auditory perception, particularly in the field. For example, the specifics of memory disruption may be more difficult to pinpoint when an environmental insult occurs. Such investigations may require extra effort, including finding ways to work with affected animals temporarily brought into human care. In a series of memory studies, author P.C. and colleagues conducted carefully controlled laboratory testing, rapid throughput behavioral sorting assays, and in vivo and postmortem brain imaging to examine the acute and chronic effects of neurotoxic algal exposure on wild and rehabilitation otariid pinnipeds along the West Coast of the United States (Cook et al., 2011, 2015, 2018). The toxin in question, domoic acid, has been shown to selectively damage the hippocampus and hippocampal circuits in the brain. Researchers were able to carefully dissociate explicit medial temporal memory deficits in rehabilitating sea lions from other types of learning and memory impairments using behavioral approaches pioneered in laboratory rodents. With structural and functional neuroimaging, they established double dissociations clearly linking insult to particular brain regions with specific cognitive and behavioral impairments in these wild animals (Cook et al., 2015, 2016). This work continues to bear on decision making regarding rehabilitation and release criteria and long-term captive housing of affected animals (Cook et al., 2021; Simeone et al., 2019). Although the level of dose-response control achievable in laboratory studies was not possible, the pragmatic trade-off, often required in conservation work, was the ability to study direct survival-relevant neurobehavioral impact in the pinnipeds whose outcomes were in question.

Translation Across Audiences

To connect the dots in many domains of cognition will take creative and persistent work, with special attention paid to understanding and highlighting the ecological relevance of higher cognitive processes elicited only in esoteric laboratory paradigms. Potential methods for managing this goal include participating in interdisciplinary teams, tailoring our writing for relevant audiences, and explaining the importance of understanding cognitive mechanisms to make predictions about animal behavior.

Working in interdisciplinary teams can help comparative psychologists produce ecologically relevant science that informs policy, as the examples in the previous section suggest. In the domoic acid case, scientists with expertise in animal cognition, physiological mechanisms of behavior, field biology, veterinary medicine, and conservation policy came together with clear, shared goals and worked to create and understand relevant knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. The full team was important because, although a behavioral neuroscientist may be best situated to characterize which particular aspect of memory is impaired by a naturally occurring neural insult, a field biologist may be best situated to determine to what extent such impairment will affect an animal in the wild. Likewise, policy experts may be best situated to determine the kinds of related interventions that are feasible at scale. The relationships established in the team allowed for agreed-upon benchmarks for application and conservation success as well as the emergence of shared vocabulary regarding behavior and mechanisms.

Of course, using language that is accessible to one’s audience is central to all communication, and some concepts are more universal than others. The many readily comprehensible terms (e.g., hearing, sensitivity, localization, dB, sound waves, noise) in the preceding anthropogenic noise example was one likely reason for success. These scientists and regulators were comfortable with the terms whether they were presented by psychologists, physicists, engineers, navy technicians, or the general public. In contrast, lay understandings of many cognitive constructs are insufficiently constrained or misunderstood—for instance, habituation and extinction; habituation and extinction do not transfer well but are often treated by policymakers as if they do. For example, policymakers often argue that interactions between rehabilitating animals and human caretakers should not occur, because they will lead animals to transfer habituation to humans upon return to natural habitats, where it can be dangerous for animals to interact with people. Another example is provided by federal permit requirements to extinguish behaviors learned in human care settings before release, a situation likely to lead to renewal in the wild. This misapplication of basic learning principles limits opportunities for research in rehabilitation settings, including research that is central to supporting species conservation (Bauer, 2005).

Comparative psychologists need to communicate how understanding the mechanisms underlying behaviors can lead to more generalizable and apt recommendations for managing wild animals. Mimetic behavior provides such an example: One conservation problem facing bottlenose dolphins is depredation of hooked fish by wild dolphins. This practice not only frustrates fishers but also puts dolphins at risk of injury from fishing gear, including through entanglement. In one society of dolphins living in Sarasota Bay, depredation and similar practices went from being expressed by 25 dolphins to being expressed by 190 dolphins across a 21-year time span (Christiansen et al., 2016). Sometimes these behaviors were learned generationally within matrilines, negatively affecting survival of related individuals (Wells, 2019). Because comparative psychologists have confirmed through laboratory studies that the bottlenose dolphin can readily imitate novel behaviors, we can infer that the spread of this harmful method of foraging likely occurred through imitation. Such an understanding of the likely cognitive mechanism suggests that relevant research questions should include learning more about influential dolphin models and their social networks, which we hope will provide insight into potential solutions. However, the literature in comparative cognition requires translation by an expert in the field to clearly express the number of potential mechanisms that can lead to the production of similar behaviors across individuals; one could easily get lost in terms such as trial-and-error learning, social facilitation, local or stimulus enhancement, true imitation, and emulation without having strong background knowledge in comparative psychology.

Becoming Available to Conservation Teams

Interdisciplinary teams generally do not happen without effort. If we think our work is important to conservation, we need to use language that other professionals in different fields can understand and to seek out and meet those working in conservation where they are. We should not shy away from presenting findings we believe relevant at interdisciplinary and conservation-relevant meetings.

We should also recognize the difficult position we are in when trying to explain the mechanisms of behavior to nonpsychologists. Because of our own behavioral and social ecology, all humans are folk psychologists. We grow up being instructed in and constantly forming heuristic mentalistic models for why those around us behave the way they do. As noted earlier, psychologists often use language colloquial to the lay public (e.g., imitation) but with strict technical definitional criteria that may be nonintuitive for many, including highly trained biologists, veterinarians, and conservation professionals. We need to translate those terms for managers and other out-of-field collaborators. In addition, we may get more traction if, instead of claiming to be able to fully explain conservation outcomes on the basis of a singular cognitive framework, we provide a few reasonable alternative interpretations of relevant behavior that are accessible and testable, perhaps in collaboration with field biologists and agency managers.


The mechanisms discovered by comparative psychologists give us good tools to offer solutions to problems in situ animals face (e.g., in marine mammal conservation of depredating dolphins), but for this information to help, people who are managing habitats or populations for conservation need to know about these findings, understand them, and see how they are relevant. It is the job of comparative psychologists to make that happen—and often to suggest new research paradigms that may help make management more effective. In many of these examples, individuals matter: Who affects the dispersal of knowledge? Is transfer horizontal and vertical or both? Is the behavior habitual? What might disrupt the behaviors? Changes in attention? Changes in stimuli? Comparative psychologists are in a good position to address these questions.

As the world changes, comparative psychologists have a role to play to help humans and other animals as they work to adjust. Although this role will surely have its challenges, it will also offer many opportunities for interesting work related both to questions we have pondered for a long time and to those we will discover as we go.


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