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Social dominance status is associated with differences in spatial cognitive flexibility in wild mountain chickadees

Citation

Heinen, Virginia et al. (2021), Social dominance status is associated with differences in spatial cognitive flexibility in wild mountain chickadees, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.kh189326b

Abstract

Social dominance has long been used as a model to investigate social stress. However, many studies using such comparisons have been performed in captive environments. These environments may produce unnaturally high antagonistic interactions, exaggerating the stress of social subordination and any associated adverse consequences. One such adverse effect concerns impaired cognitive ability, often thought to be associated with social subordination. Here, we tested whether social dominance rank is associated with differences in spatial learning and memory and in reversal spatial learning (flexibility) abilities in wild food-caching mountain chickadees at different montane elevations. Higher dominance rank was associated with higher spatial cognitive flexibility in harsh environments at higher elevations, but not at lower, milder elevations. In contrast, there were no consistent differences in spatial learning and memory ability associated with dominance rank. Our results suggest that spatial learning and memory ability in specialized food-caching species is a stable trait resilient to social influences. Spatial cognitive flexibility, on the other hand, appears to be more sensitive to environmental influences including social dominance. These findings contradict those from laboratory studies and suggest that it is critical to investigate the biological consequences of social dominance under natural conditions.