Innovative problem-solving in a human-made world


Living in a changing world, animals often have to face novel environmental conditions. Innovation – the ability to produce new behaviours or to apply novel solutions to old problems – is a crucial aspect of behavioural flexibility as it results in modified learned behaviour, introducing novel variants into a population’s behavioural repertoire. Responding to challenges by novel, appropriate behaviours requires a degree of behavioural flexibility that can be cognitively demanding, which might explain the substantial variation both within and between species in the ability to innovate. Innovation is phylogenetically widespread, particularly in species with generalist or opportunistic lifestyles or those forced to cope with impoverishes or altered environments. The expansion of human-altered environments presents wildlife with multiple novel situations in which innovativeness could be beneficial.

We investigated within-species variation in innovation propensity in relation to the current degree of disturbance experienced by small mammals in anthropogenic environments, comparing problem-solving performance of wild striped field mice (Apodemus agrarius) originating from rural or urban environments in a battery of eight foraging extraction tasks. We also aimed to identify the potential mechanisms underpinning between-individual differences in innovation, focusing on the relative contribution of the personality traits boldness and activity, persistence and motor diversity.

Urban individuals were better problem solvers despite rural individuals approaching faster and being more persistent. The best predictors of solving success, aside from the area of origin, were the time spent exploring the set-ups and boldness, while activity and diversity of motor responses did not explain it. Findings are consistent with the idea that living in human-altered environments might favour increased problem-solving performance, and that innovation may play a key role in the individual’s success in the colonisation of novel environments.

Collaborators: Dr. Anja Guenther, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön (Germany)

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