Our research is devoted to the study of animal cognition in a broad, biological framework. Applying a number of different methodologies we investigate cognitive processes that animals use in nature. Rather than using animals as model systems to understand humans, we as biologists are oriented towards understanding the animals within a biological context. By combining the ethological and the cognitive approach we pursue a multilevel, integrative research program. As emphasized by Niko Tinbergen acknowledging the work of Konrad Lorenz, we need to understand behavior at four different levels, in terms of phylogeny (historical), adaptation (function), causation (mechanism) and development (ontogeny). We try to combine experimental and comparative approaches, pursuing the concept of converging operations by testing the species in question with a battery of different tests in the lab and the field. Theoretical work is concerned with the evolution of cognition. Applied work focuses on human-animal interactions and ethical issues.
We are working in several laboratories in Vienna, as well as at field sites in Austria, New Zealand and Brazil with several avian and mammalian species.
Our current research projects cluster around four topics of animal cognition:
Probably the most fundamental component or groundwork of cognition is categorization. Using improved methodologies, we have demonstrated that pigeons can categorize pictures as complex as those encountered in ordinary human experience. The underlying cognitive mechanisms include picture memorization, feature learning, prototype formation and the abstraction of concepts. In a recent series of experiments, we found that pigeons classified visually complex, natural images (male and female human faces) by means of their global properties, which covaried with the semantic content of the categories. We concluded that natural categories and visual classes are coextensive, i.e., that behavioral and perceptual contingencies are conjointly correlated with environmental dimensions of variance. Recently we have begun accompanying studies on the perception of biological motion to serve social recognition, the abstraction of three-dimensional structure from motion, and the functional asymmetry of the pigeon brain.
Social cognition not only refers to general learning processes that are employed for group behavior, but also to new and unique strategies to control the relationships between conspecifics and to transmit information between individuals and generations. One focus is on the mechanisms underlying learning through conspecific observation and their contribution to the horizontal transmission of innovations. Experiments have been conducted with marmosets and dogs to investigate their ability of true imitation, i.e., to learn some part of the form of a demonstrated behavior. We also study other forms of non-genetic transmission of information, like stimulus enhancement, social facilitation and emulation (i.e., to learn about the properties or the function of objects) with keas. The functional role of social learning has been investigated in all those species in the field. Most recently, we provided the first evidence that animals imitate in an inferential, selective manner. Like in children, dogs selective re-enactment of the demonstrated action seems to be influenced at least by the inference about efficiency.
A second focus is on dealing with a complex social world which requires sophisticated knowledge about conspecifics (i.e. recognizing individuals, understanding dyadic and triadic relationships). Such knowledge allows individuals to predict the behavior of others and to develop tactics to manipulate others (Machiavellian mind). One of the key questions here concerns the understanding of mental states, i.e. whether individuals know that they can affect the mind of others (Theory of mind). The ability of attributing psychological states (perception, attention, intentions, or beliefs) to others may have considerable consequences on the quality and flexibility of social manipulation and has been considered to be a major factor in demarcating humans from non-human animals. Nevertheless, some non-human animals such as chimpanzees and ravens appear to understand elements of the other's visual experience, suggesting that an all-or-nothing approach, with non-human animals lacking any capacities for attributing mental states, is strongly debatable.
In the in-animate environment problems arise from the interaction with objects, the understanding of physics (folk physics), of time, space and causality. For many decades, most researchers who have investigated such technical problems like tool use have emphasized trial-and-error exploration and fortuitous discovery of solutions to problems that are reinforced by operative conditioning as the mechanisms of discovery and learning. We think that this view underestimates the cognitive abilities of many species. Using the kea as model, we study causal understanding, insightful behavior, object permanence, the understanding of tertiary relations, and other forms of sensory-motor intelligence. We also want to understand how these capacities develop during ontogeny. We aim at understanding the major constraints of cognitive abilities, for example when, why and in what contexts individuals are explorative and how that is affected by neophobia. Furthermore, we started to relate individual behavioral phenotype (personality) with exploration and different aspects of (social) learning. In order to investigate those questions in a completely controlled manner, we have begun to hand-raise keas and to observe their development from hatching as complete as possible. Comparisons with ravens and jackdaws (at the KLF in Grünau ) provide some insight into the selective pressures for the evolution of technical cognition.
Evolution of cognition
Hundred-forty years after Spencer, evolutionary psychologists again claim that the light of evolution will illuminate psychology. Our theoretical research has been devoted to psychophylogenesis, i.e., on how innovations and limitations contribute to the evolution of cognition. It is motivated by the analysis of how evolutionary processes have shaped brain functioning, by overcoming a naive anthropocentric bias and by showing how these results have powerful consequences for biology and psychology alike.
- Behavioral experiments with captive animals in the laboratory
- Quantitative methods of behavioral analysis
- Observations and field experiments with free-living animals in the wild (Austria, New Zealand, Brasil)
- Radio tracking
- Controlled hand rearing (keas, corvids, marmosets)
- Functional brain analysis (brain asymmetries)*
- Neuroanatomy, neuroimaging (size and location of brain centers)*
- Genetic analysis of sex and kinship using micro satellites*
* in cooperation
Our research is currently funded by the following agencies and organizations:
Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Austrian National Bank (Jubiläumsfonds)
European Commission (6th framework program NEST)
Stadt Wien (Hochschuljubiläumsstiftung)
Biocenter Althanstrasse, University of Vienna
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (New Zealand)
Recife, Pernambuco, Brasil
*Konrad Lorenz institute for ethology (Academy of Sciences)
* in cooperation
(a) external labs:
- in collaboration with private sponsors and 'Vereinen': Clever Dog Lab, Wolf Science Centre, Konrad Lorenz Forschungsstelle Grünau
- in collaboration with the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna: Biological Research Station Haidlhof
(b) Austrian non-university institutions:
KLI Altenberg, KLIVV
Tiergarten Wien Schönbrunn, Alpenzoo Innsbruck, Zoo Wels, Edinburgh Zoo, Münchner Tierpark Hellabrunn
- grants: EDICI (EU FP6), COCOR (ESF EUROCORES), SOMACCA (ERC); networking grants INCORE (EU FP6), COMPCOG (ESF)
- universities: Receive, Brazil (Prof. A. Souto, Dr. N. Schiel); Keio Tokyo, Japan (Prof. S. Watanabe, Dr. E. Izawa); St Andrews, Scotland (Prof. A. Whiten, Dr. K. Zuberbühler), Bochum, Germany (Prof. O. Güntürkün), Queens U. Kingston (Prof. N. Troje), Eötvös Budapest (Prof. A. Miklosi), Princton, USA (Prof. Ghazanfar), Strasbourg, France (Prof. R. Noe), Trieste, Italy (Prof. P. Zucca)