Among-individual differences in auditory and physical cognitive abilities in zebra finches

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  • Among-individual variation in performance on cognitive tasks is ubiquitous across species that have been examined, and understanding the evolution of cognitive abilities requires investigating among-individual variation because natural selection acts on individual differences. However, relatively little is known about the extent to which individual differences in cognition are determined by domain-specific compared to domain-general cognitive abilities. We examined individual differences in learning speed of zebra finches across seven different tasks to determine the extent of domain-specific versus domain-general learning abilities, as well as the relationship between learning speed and learning generalization. Thirty-two zebra finches completed a foraging board experiment that included visual and structural discriminations, and then these same birds went through an acoustic operant discrimination experiment that required discriminating between different natural categories of acoustic stimuli. We found evidence of domain-general learning abilities as birds’ relative performance on the seven learning tasks was weakly repeatable and a principal components analysis found a first principal component that explained 36% of the variance in performance across tasks with all tasks loading unidirectionally on this component. However, the few significant correlations between tasks and higher repeatability within each experiment suggest the potential for domain-specific abilities. Learning speed did not influence an individual’s ability to generalize learning. These results suggest that zebra finch performance across visual, structural and auditory learning relies upon some common mechanism; some might call this evidence of ‘general intelligence’(g), but it is also possible that this finding is due to other non-cognitive mechanisms such as motivation.

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    Article (Published)
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    Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International