Individual variation in cognitive performance in a varying environment: an example in the African striped mice
Cognition enables organisms to process, use and store information gathered from their natural environment. There is growing evidence of relationships between cognitive abilities, such as learning, and the fitness benefits in free-living populations. However, cognition is not cost-free, resulting in trade-offs in energy investment between neural or other physiological structures. Therfore, indidvidual variation in cognitive performance is expected to closely match the energy demands imposed by the prevailing environmental conditions, an ability that might play an important role in adaptation to new environments, particularly under human-induced rapid environmental change. I will provide a brief overview of this fascinating research domain by focusing specifically on cognitive skills investigated in a rodent model, the \*African striped mice, Rhabdomys pumilio. The striped mouse is a nice model to study the influence of environmental variation on cognition because it inhabits the semi desert Succulent karoo in southern Africa where it faces marked seasonal changes in food availability. I will present my resarch on i) how cognitive performance changes between seasons that differ significantly in food availability; ii) how these changes are related to environmentally induced physiological changes such as blood glucose levels; and iii) whether cognitive performance are related to individual survival. I will discuss the results in relation to existing findings and future research aiming to enhance our understanding of the evolution of cognition in non-human animals.