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Foraging on anthropogenic food predicts problem-solving skills in a seabird

Cite this dataset

Lamarre, Jessika; Cheema, Sukhinder Kaur; Robertson, Gregory J.; Wilson, David R. (2022). Foraging on anthropogenic food predicts problem-solving skills in a seabird [Dataset]. Dryad.


Species and populations with greater cognitive performance are more successful at adapting to changing habitats. Accordingly, urban species and populations often outperform their rural counterparts on problem-solving tests. Paradoxically, urban foraging also might be detrimental to the development and integrity of animals’ brains because anthropogenic foods often lack essential nutrients such as the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are important for cognitive performance in mammals and possibly birds. We tested whether urbanization or consumption of EPA and DHA are associated with problem-solving abilities in ring-billed gulls, a seabird that historically exploited marine environments rich in omega-3 fatty acids but now also thrives in urban centres. Using incubating adults nesting across a range of rural to urban colonies with equal access to the ocean, we tested whether urban gulls preferentially consumed anthropogenic food while rural nesters relied on marine organisms. As we expected individual variation in foraging habits within nesting location, we characterized each captured gulls’ diet using stable isotope and fatty acid analyses of their red blood cells. To test their problem-solving abilities, we presented the sampled birds with a horizontal rendition of the string-pull test, a foraging puzzle often used in animal cognitive studies. The isotopic and fatty acid profiles of urban nesters indicated a diet comprising primarily anthropogenic food, whereas the profiles of rural nesters indicated a high reliance on marine organisms. Despite the gulls’ degree of access to urban foraging habitat not predicting solving success, birds with biochemical profiles reflecting anthropogenic food (less DHA and a higher carbon-13 ratio in their red blood cells) had a greater probability of solving the string-pull test. These results suggest that experience foraging on anthropogenic food is the main explanatory factor leading to successful problem-solving, while regular consumption of omega-3s during incubation appears inconsequential.


Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Award: PGS-D

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Award: RGPIN-2015-03769

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Award: RGPIN-217451-2011