Research Expertise and Interest

Cognitive and brain evolution, adaptive patterns in spatial memory, spatial navigation, olfactory navigation, sensory evolution, cognitive sex differences and decision making

Research Description

Lucia Jacobs is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience.  

Mobile animals must track and predict the behavior of prey, predators, mates and competitors across space and time. In the Jacobs Lab of Cognitive Biology they 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.

Their research focuses on champion species, with specialized abilities to solve sensory, motor or cognitive challenges. Currently they are team members of a NSF Ideas Lab collaboration with physicists and neuroscientists (, teaming their efforts to identify the universal heuristics of navigation to odors. Their champion species for this project is the trained search dog, tracking humans under different weather conditions. They 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. Their other champion species is the Berkeley campus fox squirrel, their model species for cognitive biology. They 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.

Their 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. Their lab studies 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.

Their 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. They will study squirrel cognition through the lens of cognitive development, identifying parameters that can lead to the development of innovative behaviors. Partnering with WildCare, they are planning to launch studies of cognitive development in orphaned squirrel pups to Berkeley to study their behavioral development in what we call “CalSquirrel School”. Their 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, they plan to employ new technology to track their subsequent behavior and survival.

Their 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 their 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; Jinn et al. 2020) and PROUST hypothesis, on the evolution of the main and vomeronasal olfactory systems in vertebrates (Jacobs, 2019 and ongoing).

In the News

Leaping squirrels! Parkour is one of their many feats of agility

Videos of squirrels leaping from bendy branches across impossibly large gaps, parkouring off walls, scrambling to recover from tricky landings are not just more YouTube content documenting the antics of squirrels. Researchers at UC Berkeley are capturing video of squirrels as part of their research to understand the split-second decisions squirrels make to elude deadly predators, research that could help with development of robots with better agility and control.

Scientists win $6.4 million to crack the code of smell navigation

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.

Humans’ built-in GPS is our 3-D sense of smell

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.”

Brain size matters when it comes to animal self-control

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.

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