Animal cognitive abilities have traditionally been studied in the lab, but studying cognition in nature could provide several benefits including reduced stress and reduced impact on life-history traits. However, it is not yet clear to what extent cognitive abilities can be properly measured in the wild. Here we present the first comparison of the cognitive performance of individuals from the same population, assessed using an identical test, but in contrasting contexts: in the wild vs. in controlled captive conditions. We show that free-ranging great tits (Parus major) perform similarly to deprived, captive birds in a successive spatial reversal-learning task using automated operant devices. In both captive and natural conditions, more than half of birds that contacted the device were able to perform at least one spatial reversal. Moreover, both captive and wild birds showed an improvement of performance over successive reversals, with very similar learning curves observed in both contexts for each reversal. Our results suggest that it is possible to study cognitive abilities of wild animals directly in their natural environment in much the same way that we study captive animals. Such methods open numerous possibilities to study and understand the evolution and ecology of cognition in natural populations.
Scientific Reports, vol. 7, n. 12945, 2017