Aplin Group - Cognitive Ecology

What do we do? We are broadly interested in cognition, social systems and behavioural responses to changing environments. Our current focus is on understanding how innovations rise and spread to form animal cultures, and how cultural traits change over time in response to social and environmental drivers.

We have fun expanding the scope and scale of our projects with custom automated data collection– from GPS tags and animal-borne microphones, to QR codes for detection and PIT tag/RFID antennae interfacing puzzle-boxes. We are certified bird nuts here, so while all study systems have their pros and cons, our work to date has mostly been on birds, particularly parrots. 

Social Cognition
How much cognition is involved in navigating social interactions and in building social networks? How is this influenced by fission-fusion dynamics? Most previous work examining social cognition in animals has been in the lab – we take it to the field, allowing us to ask how important “playing politics” is for life history outcomes. Our current work examines social cognition in wild, urban-living sulphur-crested cockatoos. We habituate birds to take close observations of social interactions and perform experiments, and use citizen science to build social networks at larger scales.

Animal Culture
When innovations arise in human societies, they can spread rapidly through social networks to form new cultural traits––this capacity is a vital component of our success. A long history of research has now established that other animals can also exhibit culture. But can cultural traits in animals similarly emerge and change in response to social or environmental drivers? And can culture be an important determinant of behavioural flexibility in other species? We study this process of “cultural evolution” with approaches range from controlled captive studies to large-scale wild experiments, to landscape-level citizen science.

Most of our work has focused on foraging cultures, in both titmice and parrots, but we also study the patterns and process of vocal dialects in parrots.

Urban Ecology
The study of the spread of innovations also naturally leads to species that might be considered "success stories" – highly adaptable species that have taken advantage of their behavioural and cognitive flexibility to expand their population size and range under anthropogenic change. This means our work has ended up focusing on birds in urban areas, and we are interested in how cognition and culture may facilitate urban adaptation. Together with Dr. John Martin (Taronga Zoo) and Prof. Dieter Hochuli (USyd) we run the Big City BirdsCitizen Science App., that allows us to collect data on occurrence, movement and behaviour of urban parrots.

For more information, please take a look at our lab website (joint with the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior)

Group Leader