biologyScience

Riders in the maze have two ways to navigate

New research shows that riders fall into two groups in terms of how they find their way – and that different species prefer slightly different habitats.

University of Exeter scientists tested whether individual riders were using landmarks (assignment) or their own (self-centered) to learn the way through a maze.

Captive-bred pheasants are later released into the wild, and their choice of habitat is noted.

All riders preferred the woods, but specialist navigators spent more time outdoors, with their feature-based style most advantageous.

“Humans tend to use each of these navigation tactics and combine them a lot,” said Dr. Christine Birdsworth.

“It is assumed that species prefer whatever strategy suits their habitat, rather than using habitats that fit their strategy.

“Riders generally prefer woodland, where a dedicated strategy is difficult because there are so many trees close to each other, so picking out sights is difficult.

“ Therefore, we would expect most riders to use a self-centered strategy – turning left or right or moving forward based on their previous position and movements.

“However, in our study, about half of the riders raised in identical conditions used an assignment strategy, while the other half used a mixed or selfish strategy.”

In trials, 20 riders first learned how to navigate a simple maze, then encountered a round version.

By changing the direction of the maze while keeping the position of “landmarks” intact, including the position of the human observer, scientists were able to establish the preferred navigation strategy for each bird.

Finding individual difference indicates that riders are either born with an “ingrained cognitive bias,” or they develop one early in life.

The resulting differences in habitat selection may indicate that these biases help them navigate more effectively in certain environments, and may outperform other riders in transporting resources. However, it was not yet clear if this was the case.

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The research team included the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.

The work was funded by a consolidated ERC grant awarded to Dr. Joah Madden.

The paper published in the journal Ecology LettersIs the choice of habitats in the wild shaped by individual cognitive biases in the orientation strategy?

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