How do different ecological pressures affect animal learning and memory abilities? Our investigations use factors such as predation pressure or the relative stability of the local environment to determine what shapes cognition and temperament in different natural populations. Our studies use within species comparisons and rearing in controlled environments to determine factors underpinning individual differences in cognition and behavior. Much of our work uses natural populations of fish to address these issues.
Pain in Fish
Do fish have a capacity to detect tissue damaging stimuli and if they do, can the fish perceive such stimuli as painful? We have shown that fish have a nociceptive system - specialized receptors and nerve fibers that detect noxious stimuli - similar to those found in mammals and birds. We have also found that fish experiencing noxious stimuli are cognitively impaired, but this impairment can be reversed if the fish are provided with pain relief. We are currently using fish cognition as a tool to investigate whether fish suffer. Our work aims to determine what types of welfare measures might be appropriate for fish held in captivity for aquaculture or in research establishments.
Fish Welfare and Brain Function
While brief mild stress enhances learning and memory, chronic or severe stress impairs these processes, decreasing coping ability. These effects are linked to a reduction in neural plasticity in the hippocampus and amygdala, brain regions associated with learning, memory, reward processes and aggressive behavior. Currently, we know little about the effects of stress on neural plasticity in fish. This project aims to establish the molecular and functional relationship between environmental stress, neural plasticity, and learning and memory behaviors in fish.
Conservation and Restocking
Over the last few years there have been concerted efforts made to bolster threatened fish populations through the managed release of hatchery reared individuals. While hatcheries provide a safe and productive growing environment, they do little to prepare fish for life in naturally variable wild environments. We have been investigating how to introduce elements of variability into the hatchery environment to promote behavioral flexibility and increase survival in hatchery reared fish that are released into the wild.
Early life experiences shape future behavior and behavioral plasticity. We are investigating how experience with different kinds of stressor during early life impacts threatened fish populations through the managed release of hatchery reared.