Volume 19: pp. 113-120

Envisioning the Future of Comparative Cognition Through an Undergraduate Lens

Deirdre B. Yeater

Department of Psychology, Sacred Heart University

Heather Manitzas Hill

Department of Psychology, St. Mary’s University

Lauren Highfill

Department of Psychology and Animal Studies, Eckerd College

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This commentary provides an updated summary of how comparative cognition is approached by researchers based at primarily undergraduate institutions. Because of the difficulties in supporting traditional laboratories, we highlight a number of nontraditional research methodologies that can be accessed by undergraduate students. We also provide advantages and disadvantages of these alternate methodologies. We promote the need for interdisciplinary study of animal cognition topics in in situ and ex situ settings, as well as call for an expansion of cognitive abilities for application to animal welfare and conservation efforts.

Keywordsundergraduates, comparative cognition, zoos, PUI, citizen science, nontraditional animal laboratories

Author Note Deirdre Yeater, Department of Psychology, Sacred Heart University, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06825.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Deirdre Yeater at yeaterd@sacredheart.edu

Although the comparative cognition field faces challenges in funding and resources, emerging technologies and interdisciplinary collaborations offer hope. We explore topics critical to the advancement of comparative cognition while highlighting practicalities needed to achieve this goal. From our primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) perspective, we examine the current state of the discipline and share challenges and successes we have encountered through more than 20 years of research.

Previous Reflections on Comparative Cognition

The status of comparative cognition as a field has been addressed by many authors (e.g., Bauer et al., 2020; Beran, 2023; Beran et al., 2014; Farrar et al., 2020, 2021; Krasheninnikova et al., 2020). These articles shared several themes, including advocating for broader species inclusion, larger samples, replication studies, and more sensitive and comparative-friendly research methodologies. Additionally, an emphasis on social cognition and the consideration of individual differences were recurring suggestions.

Large-scale collaborative efforts have emerged under the Many Projects umbrella, which facilitates larger samples and encourages replication (ManyBirds: Lambert et al., 2022; ManyDogs Project et al., 2023; ManyPrimates et al., 2019). As a proof of concept of these collaborations, ManyPrimates successfully conducted a partial replication study on short-term memory with multiple species of primates (N = 41) and the largest number of individual primates ever tested (N = 421; ManyPrimates et al., 2022). Beyond the collaborative projects, the range of species under study has expanded to include less studied groups such as reptiles, fish, insects, and invertebrates (Burghardt, 2010, 2015; Matsubara et al., 2017). This diversity of species offers opportunities for testing hypotheses not feasible with birds or mammals (Matsubara et al., 2017). Additionally, cognitive research is increasingly conducted in nontraditional settings, such as zoos, aquariums, farms, and in the wild (Hopper, 2017; Maple, 2016; Pritchard et al., 2016; Vonk et al., 2015).

Personal Reflections on the Field of Comparative Cognition

As professors at PUIs who conduct research in zoological institutions with marine mammals (e.g., dolphins, belugas, killer whales, sea lions) and charismatic zoo animals (e.g., elephants, orangutans, otters), we have provided myriad opportunities for undergraduate students to study animal behavior and cognition by exposing them to the research process, from developing ideas and apparatus, to data collection and analysis, and culminating in dissemination. High-impact practices, such as these, have been shown to develop interest and transform students into future passionate researchers (i.e., Hill & Karlin, 2019; Karlin et al., 2022; Lanning & Brown, 2019). 

Although comparative cognition appears to thrive in many areas, issues persist, especially within PUIs. Abramson’s (2015) call for recruiting undergraduates as the next generation of comparative psychologists resonates with our observations in the field of comparative cognition. Notably, this discipline is often overlooked in psychology programs, lacks accessible textbooks for undergraduates, and faces a shortage of graduate programs. Whether because of funding issues, interest, or the need to justify animal-model research, many comparative programs have shifted toward neuroscience and working on translational research questions. We believe that there is room for both comparative psychology, specifically comparative cognition, and neuroscience, and in fact these two subfields should be complementary.

Alternatives to Traditional Laboratories

Traditionally, undergraduate students have been exposed to animal cognition through animal laboratories (“labs”). However, budgetary constraints and lack of support staff are prompting institutions (including our own) to move away from housing animal colonies on campus. We emphasize the importance of traditional animal labs for fundamental research, but we acknowledge the need for alternatives when on-campus housing is impractical.

One growing trend involves setting up “nontraditional” animal labs where animal subjects come for a day of research. For example, many canine cognition labs have developed over the past several years (Byosiere & Prasad-Shreckengast, 2022; Furlong et al., 2015; Wynne, 2016), where the animals are brought to a study location for a brief task. Benefits to this approach include less overhead in terms of animal care, responsibility, and training involved, but this approach limits the types of cognitive questions that can be tested. Although bringing animals to a study site for the short term may affect control over factors such as history or genetics, any consistent cognitive findings would be more universal because of variation. Other nontraditional locations for research have included in homes, animal shelters (Thielke & Udell, 2019), and doggie day care centers (Salzer & Reed, 2022; Trisko & Smuts, 2015).

To advance the field, exploring nontraditional locations for data collection is crucial. Encouraging partnerships with zoos, nature centers, aquariums, rescue centers, animal shelters, and doggie day care centers broadens research possibilities. The use of ex situ sites has been championed by Maple (2016), who paved the way for research partnerships between zoological and academic institutions. Research in zoos not only leads to a deeper understanding of the behavior and cognition of animals but also provides meaningful enrichment, which improves overall welfare. Research conducted at zoos, nature centers, or similar facilities can engage the public with science (e.g., Harley et al., 2010). This engagement propels the conservation missions of institutions and results in conservation behavioral changes in patrons (e.g., Godinez & Fernandez, 2019; Grajal et al., 2017). Despite these benefits, collecting data in zoos and aquariums creates several challenges, including limited access to animals (Highfill & Yeater, 2018) or limited trial opportunities. Often, the number of student research assistants is limited by facility protocols. Despite these challenges, once a project is in place, the benefits often outweigh the initial difficulties, as demonstrated by the success of a longitudinal study of beluga behavior across multiple facilities over more than 15 years (Hill et al., 2021).

Another nontraditional lab space is the use of citizen science, in which laypersons participate more intentionally in research, such as dog owners testing their dogs at home (Beran, 2023). Citizen science increases the scope of individuals to be accessed for engagement in cognitive research, as evidenced by a dog cognition study that recruited more than 500 citizen scientists to replicate a traditional lab-based study (Stewart et al., 2015). Since then, growing evidence has shown that citizen science is a useful technique to gather animal cognition data sets. As an example from one of our labs, Willgohs and colleagues (2022) had amateur dog trainers participate in research by filming training and experimental sessions on creativity. Researchers at University of California, San Diego are currently reviewing home videos of the famous Bunny the Shepadoodle, whose owner claims Bunny can press buttons to communicate with humans (Inside Edition, 2020). Although these examples demonstrate the possibility of this nontraditional lab space, there are unwanted consequences, including lack of control, variation in implementation of procedure, and potential for fabrication of data by untrained data collectors. However, if the project is simple enough, data from individuals may be aggregated.

Expanding Methodologies to Many Species

Replications, a great option for undergraduate student participation, can be extended to different settings and species, which provides opportunities for comparative methodologies to be implemented. Another extension from traditional lab settings is to perform replications of cognitive research to similar species in natural habitats. Visual laterality in cetaceans was assessed both in managed care (Hill et al., 2016; Lilley et al., 2020; Manitzas Hill et al., 2022; Yeater et al., 2014, 2017) and in the wild (belugas: Karenina, Giljov, Baranov, et al., 2010; Karenina, Giljov, Malashichev, et al., 2010; killer whales: Karenina et al., 2013; striped dolphins: Siniscalchi et al., 2012). Highfill and Kuczaj (2010) examined the construct of personality in wild and captive dolphins. These examples and more were explored in a 2016 special issue by the International Journal of Comparative Psychology (Hill et al., 2016), and more recently at a workshop on how comparative cognition may be applied to conservation questions during the Society for Marine Mammalogy biennial meeting (Harley et al., 2022). As Beran (2023) highlighted, comparative cognition needs to broaden the species tested. One promising avenue is the exploration of cognitive questions in livestock (i.e., Horback & Parsons, 2022; Nawroth et al., 2019). This approach not only addresses phylogenetic and functional questions but also enhances our understanding of the welfare of these animals.

We also encourage extending and validating research methodologies to other species and across settings. The use of the same methodologies with different species is a truly comparative approach and more informative, ultimately. For example, using the same methodology in various settings, we have studied creativity in dogs (Willgohs et al., 2022), dolphins, killer whales (Dudzinski et al., 2018; Hill et al., 2022), and preschoolers (Melzer et al., 2022); violation of expectations in belugas, bottlenose dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins (Manitzas Hill et al., 2022), rough-toothed dolphins (Lilley et al., 2018), and dogs (Yeater et al., 2024); long-term memory and problem solving (otters species and dogs; DeLong et al., 2024). The advantages of conducting comparative research enable the investigation of similar problems with flexible but standardized methodologies that can be adapted to facility needs. However, standardizing the methodology across different settings and accessing different groups of animals can be challenging.

Future Directions

Both lab-based studies and observational research remain important tools in comparative cognition. Lab-based research enables specific questions about comparative cognition topics to be examined with control and manipulation while observational research validates these topics in ecologically valid settings and provides undergraduates opportunities to develop research skills. Observational research can be performed in various settings, offering less invasive approaches and easier approval processes. Topics that lend themselves to observational and lab-based research are play, innovative behavior, personality, and problem solving.

One exciting application of comparative cognition research is to address animal welfare needs, which may then enhance conservation measures. The Five Domain model (Mellor et al., 2020) emphasizes several areas of welfare that should be addressed for animals in managed care, including cognitive engagement. Comparative cognition research could simulate natural problems animals face in situ or ex situ, such as farms or zoos, which helps to evaluate the well-being of these animals (Clark, 2017; Jaakkola, 2023; Mehrkam et al., 2020; Nawroth et al., 2019). When facilities engage their animals in cognitive research projects, the animals, guests, and trainers benefit (Harley et al., 2010). 

Comparing studies in managed care and with wild populations is necessary for the future of comparative cognition (Beran et al., 2014; Kuczaj, 2010; Miller et al., 2013). This task is becoming more realistic with advances in technology. Drones deliver both photographic and real-time videographic evidence for comparative cognition, including foraging efforts, social behavior, decision making, and navigation, while being used as experimental conditions to assess the effect of anthropogenic actions on animals in nature (Sueur & Pelé, 2023). Additionally, different aspects of artificial intelligence are providing more efficient processing of images, video recordings, sound recordings, and sensory data that enable behaviors to be modeled more effectively, which may produce insights into cognitive processes. Applying cognitive research questions and techniques to solving human–animal interaction issues could inform wildlife management practices. For example, in Sarasota Bay, Florida, cognitive research could be used to countercondition dolphins that get too close to people and beg for food (Harley et al., 2022). Techniques using behavioral principles of aversion or reinforcement are implemented in Africa to help elephants avoid high-poaching areas (The Ranch, 2021). Ultimately, though, modeling is dependent upon the information gathered from the field and must be validated before using it to predict behavior and apply to animal welfare. 

The field has many unanswered research questions, which makes for exciting future explorations. We believe that to be truly comparative, we should strive to directly compare multiple species with the same methodology (e.g., Krasheninnikova et al., 2020). Synthesizing information gathered from in situ or ex situ settings while exploring parallels with artificial intelligence systems is our future. Questions remain about the evolutionary history and environmental pressures for most cognitive abilities (Shettleworth, 2009). Research should emphasize the ecological importance of cognition in topics such as spatial cognition, long-term memory, cognitive load, decision making, and emotion. The comparative cognition field should continue to promote cross-disciplinary, and not anthropomorphic or over-generalized, conclusions.


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Yeater, D., B., Melzer, D., & Highfill, L. (2024). Violation of expectation task in Canis lupus familiaris [Unpublished raw data].