Transitions in the evolution of cognition: the case of hummingbirds and the bees
TWCF Number
Project Duration
August 1 / 2022
- January 31 / 2025
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
Amount Awarded

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Susan Healy
Institution University Court of the University of St Andrews

Hummingbirds and bees — animals with very different brains — both solve the same daily problem of finding food. They each need to feed from hundreds of flowers in a day, a foraging task made complex by the visual similarity of flowers that do and do not contain nectar. Although their spatial intelligences appear to rest on extremely powerful computing, their brain size is astonishingly small. Some explanations for the emergence of such advanced cognitive capacities correspond to the evolutionary development of new brain organization.

A new project from a team led by Susan Healy at the University of St Andrews proposes to create parallel experimental conditions in which hummingbirds, honeybees, and bumblebees each are given essentially equivalent foraging challenges.

For example, in a multi-step foraging test, the researchers hypothesize that hummingbirds should excel because of an ability to simultaneously process multiple types of information. Other experiments explore the supposed numerical capacity of bees, rates of learning and errors, and capacity to distinguish between similar but different reward conditions. In each of these tests, a line is drawn between the massively dissimilar brain structures of the vertebrates and invertebrates and their possibly-similar spatial intelligences.

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