A JCU researcher studying how animals solve problems has found an animal’s personality – particularly its level of curiosity – plays a vital part in its success.
Dr Misha Rowell said increasing concerns over human-induced rapid environmental change has led to a need to understand how animals will cope with these challenges.
Over the course of her PhD she conducted behavioural experiments on a colony of native fawn-footed mosaic-tailed rats and tracked individuals over their lifetimes.
“I studied how an individual rat’s development affected its ability to solve problems. I was trying to find out if what happened to an individual during its lifetime made it better or worse at problem solving,” said Dr Rowell.
She posed six increasingly complex problems to the rats, involving the animals figuring out how to overcome physical barriers to reach food.
“I found early development – the genetic inheritance from the mother and amount of care received from the mother – didn’t impact problem solving and neither did an individual rat’s baseline metabolism.
“Instead, the individual’s ability to solve a problem was influenced by its personality (how exploratory it was) and its ability to learn and remember information,” said Dr Rowell.
She said the rats showed consistent individual differences in behaviour when subjected to personality tests such as being confronted with a novel object or open space, with exploratory individuals more successful and solving problems faster than less exploratory individuals.
“Overall, my findings suggest that problem solving is not fixed during the early life, allowing mosaic-tailed rats to change their solving responses while they explore their environment, and learn and remember new information or experiences throughout their lifetimes.”
Dr Rowell said she is using her new PhD to continue researching problem solving in other native species to investigate how our wildlife can cope with human-induced environmental change.
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