Brains and Brawn: dominant lizards are better learners too!

Dominant individuals tend to have greater monopoly over food and mates and therefore have more offspring compared to subordinate individuals. Are these successes attributed to greater cognitive ability? Or are dominant individuals just better at freeloading from their clever subordinate counterparts?

We investigated whether dominant and subordinate eastern water skinks differ in their ability to learn from one and other (social learning). Previous work has shown in this species that young skinks tend to learn from older skinks, but age and dominance status and body size are inherently confounded. In other words, the age-dependent pattern may actually reflect a dominance effect, whereby young and therefore subordinate skinks tend to learn from older, dominant lizards.

Easter Water Skinks fighitng

Two male eastern water skinks giving no quarter

In order to disassociate these confounding factors, we matched skinks closely in size and therefore age and allowed them to fight to determine their dominance statuses. Winners of the fight was considered ‘dominant’, while the loser was considered ‘subordinate’. We then divided our skink pairs into two treatment groups, a ‘control’ group, where a skink watched their status counterparts do nothing and a ‘social learning’ group, where a skink was able to watch their status counterpart solve a foraging task e.g. a subordinate skink was able to watch a dominant skink, while a dominant skink was able to watch a subordinate skink (Fig. 2)

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 9.29.29 PM

The control group watched their status counterparts do nothing. While the social learning group watched their status counterparts solve a task before receiving the task themselves

We gave the lizards two foraging tasks. In the first task, the lizards had to learn from their status counterparts how to learn to flip a blue lid to access a worm and ignore a white lid (association task). In the second task, the lizards had to unlearn the blue lid-worm association and learn to flip the white lid for the worm (reversal task). We then recorded how many trials it took for skinks to learn these tasks.Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 9.33.44 PM

To our surprise, lizards did not seem to learn from the other lizard but instead relied on their own trial-and-error learning abilities. This was consistent for both dominant and subordinate lizards. We also found that dominant lizards learnt faster compared to subordinate lizards.

These results tell us a few neat things about social learning in the eastern water skink. Firstly, skinks were closely matched in size but they didn’t seem to learn from watching another skink. This seems to suggest that skinks may not want to learn from an individual of similar age and actually this may actually impede learning. Secondly, dominant individuals learnt faster compared to subordinate skinks implies that dominant skinks may be less prone to the stress associated with learning in the presence of another skink or they may indeed have both brains and brawn.

For more information, check out the paper published in Animal Cognition here

Kar, F., Whiting, M. J., & Noble, D. W. A. (2017). Dominance and social information use in a lizard. Animal Cognition, 20(5), 805-812. doi:10.1007/s10071-017-1101-y

PhD opportunity – visual ecology of lizards

We are looking for a highly motivated and suitably qualified candidate to conduct a PhD program of research on reptile visual ecology, commencing in 2017.

The successful applicant will be guided to develop a project to investigate the visual performance and ecological adaptations of a range of lizard species with differing life history traits. . . . → Read More: PhD opportunity – visual ecology of lizards

Hot off the press! Roommates are not all they’re cracked up to be (if you’re a lizard)

Recently, myself and collaborators published our study that found – social experience has a crucial role in development of a family-living lizard. We also discovered that despite their social nature, the Australian tree skink (Egernia striolata) does not necessarily thrive in a ‘share-house’ environment.

Egernia striolata from Gluepot, South Australia

Group- and family-living . . . → Read More: Hot off the press! Roommates are not all they’re cracked up to be (if you’re a lizard)

Hot off the press! Toads at the invasion front are more prone to explore and take risks

By Jodie Gruber

The cane toad (Rhinella marina) has been spreading rapidly across northern Australia since its introduction to control sugar cane beetles in 1935. While toads have been the focus of considerable research, we still have a poor understanding of how behavioiural traits vary across the range, particularly with respect to traits that . . . → Read More: Hot off the press! Toads at the invasion front are more prone to explore and take risks

Julia Riley interviewed on ABC radio!

Take a listen to Julia Riley discussing our latest publication on the influence of social environment on learning in tree skinks (Egernia striolata). The interview was with Marc Fennell on ABC radio.

This work, led by Julia, has been published in Animal Cognition:

Riley, JL., Noble, DWA., Byrne, RW., Whiting, MJ. 2016. Does social . . . → Read More: Julia Riley interviewed on ABC radio!

Skinks and Ladders: A family-living lizard’s learning ability is not affected by their home environment

By Julia Riley

A family-living lizard’s ability to navigate through a complex maze is not linked to how they were raised

We have found that the learning ability of the Tree Skink, a lizard that lives with family, is not linked to growing up with others. These lizards were . . . → Read More: Skinks and Ladders: A family-living lizard’s learning ability is not affected by their home environment

Dispatches from the field: frogging at the DMZ

After attending the 8th World Congress of Herpetology in China, I had a night and a day in South Korea before flying on to my next destination, the US. What to do? As it turned out, I had a windfall (thanks Julia). I met Amaël Borzée, a PhD student from Seoul National University. Amaël . . . → Read More: Dispatches from the field: frogging at the DMZ

The 8th World Congress of Herpetology

Note: the following post is by Julia Riley and also posted on her web page.

On 14 August 2016, a small contingent of the Lizard Lab headed from Sydney, Australia to Hangzhou, China for the 8th World Congress of Herpetology. Our fearless leader, Martin Whiting, as well as James Baxter-Gilbert and I were the Lizard . . . → Read More: The 8th World Congress of Herpetology

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

Book Review

A Riley & Whiting Collaboration

Julia Riley’s Review:

First, I would like to say as an expat Canadian researcher, I am happy to say that two Canadian professors wrote this book! Woot!

This book proposes a means to tackle the effect corporatization of higher education has on universities. Their ‘Slow’ Professor Manifesto . . . → Read More: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

Why do winners keep winning?

by Fonti Kar

Animals often find themselves in direct competition with other individuals for resources and mates. Because fighting is costly, many species honestly signal their fighting ability to avoid injury (non-escalated fights). For example, in flat lizards (Platysaurus broadleyi), males can resolve dominance status by displaying their UV-reflective throats to their opponent. . . . → Read More: Why do winners keep winning?