Mobile animals must track and predict the behavior of prey, predators, mates and competitors across space and time. We are interested in how diverse animal species, including humans, do this - how they choose routes, attend to different spatial cues and make foraging and food-storing decisions - all in the context of a constantly changing physical and social environment.
Our research focuses on champion species, with specialized abilities to solve sensory, motor or cognitive challenges. Currently we are team members of a NSF Ideas Lab collaboration with physicists and neuroscientists (odornavigation.org), teaming our efforts to identify the universal heuristics of navigation to odors. Our champion species for this project is the trained search dog, tracking humans under different weather conditions. We contrast dog navigation strategies with that of humans, fruit flies and mice navigating in real and virtual olfactory environments, in collaboration with our fellow team members. Our other champion species is the Berkeley campus fox squirrel, our model species for cognitive biology. We study both foraging decisions and what we call cognitive biomechanics: how animals use their knowledge of the structure of space - both its spatial layout and the biomechanical challenges of locomotion on different substrates - to develop energy-efficient routes during exploration and foraging.
Our studies of foraging decisions in squirrels is an experimental paradigm for understanding how the environment, both physical and social, influences decision making. Tree squirrels face thousands of foraging decisions each fall – “should I eat or cache this acorn?” – as they must harvest and cache their winter food supply in a matter of weeks. Food items are hidden individually yet squirrels do not defend their extensive caching areas. Instead, they rely on careful economic decisions on which items to cache and where to cache them, as well as using mnemonics to help them remember thousands of cache locations. Finally, they also pilfer other squirrels’ caches, an area of current interest. We study these questions year-round using experimental and observational studies of individually-marked, habituated fox squirrels on the Berkeley campus, as well as developing computational models of these cache and retrieval decisions.
Our field work on campus squirrels has led to a new team collaboration on squirrel behavior with biomechanicists, roboticists, mathematicians and material scientists, working together to build the first robotic squirrel. We will study squirrel cognition through the lens of cognitive development, identifying parameters that can lead to the development of innovative behaviors. Partnering with WildCare (https://www.discoverwildcare.org/), we will bring orphaned squirrel pups to Berkeley to study their behavioral development in our new “Squirrel School”, housed at Berkeley’s Field Station for Behavioral Research (near the Lawrence Hall of Science, https://vcresearch.berkeley.edu/research-unit/field-station-study-behavi...). Our research will identify the mechanism by which squirrels learn survival skills: opening nuts, caching and retrieving nuts, the development of spatial memory and pilfering strategies and finally, learning the biomechanics of navigating tree canopies. Squirrels “graduate” when they have learned these skills, at which point WildCare will return the squirrels to the wild. In the future, we plan to employ new technology to track their subsequent behavior and survival.
Our earlier work focused on how an individual’s spatial cognition and hippocampal structure may be adapted to its environmental structure and how this can differ among individuals of different species, sex or age. This work led to our development of the parallel map theory, an evolutionary model of navigation and hippocampal function (Jacobs & Schenk, 2003), the olfactory spatial hypothesis on the evolution of olfactory function in vertebrates (Jacobs, 2012) and PROUST hypothesis, on the evolution of the main and vomeronasal olfactory systems in vertebrates (under development).
In the News
Search-and-rescue dogs are prized for their ability to sniff out a hiker buried in deep snow. But how exactly do their noses work?
A team of scientists, including a UC Berkeley pioneer in odor mapping, has received a $6.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to dig deeper into how humans and animals navigate by using their sense of smell and converting odors into spatial information.
Like homing pigeons, humans have a nose for navigation because our brains are wired to convert smells into spatial information, new research shows. Similar investigations have been conducted on birds and rodents, but this is the first time smell-based navigation has been field-tested on humans. The results evoke a GPS-like superpower one could call an “olfactory positioning system.”
Chimpanzees may throw tantrums like toddlers, but their total brain size suggests they have more self-control than, say, gerbils or fox squirrels, according to a new study of 36 mammal and bird species ranging from orangutans to zebra finches.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are gathering evidence this fall that the feisty fox squirrels scampering around campus are not just mindlessly foraging for food, but engaging in a long-term savings strategy.