Developmental and familial predictors of adult cognitive traits in the European starling

Daniel Nettle, Clare P. Andrews, Pat Monaghan, Ben O. Brilot, Thomas Bedford, Robert Gillespie, Melissa Bateson

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


In birds, there is evidence that adult cognitive traits can both run in families and be affected by early developmental influences. However, different studies use different cognitive tasks, which may not be measuring the same traits, and also focus on different developmental factors. We report results from a study in which we administered multiple cognitive tasks (autoshaping, discrimination learning, reversal learning, progressive ratio schedule, extinction learning and impulsivity) to a cohort of 34 European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, for which several early developmental measures were available. The cohort consisted of siblings raised either apart or together, whose position in the size hierarchy of the rearing brood had been experimentally manipulated. We examined how the different cognitive measures covaried, the extent to which they ran in families, and which of the developmental factors predicted which of the cognitive outcomes. We found that discrimination and reversal learning speeds were positively correlated, as were breakpoint on the progressive ratio schedule and resistance to extinction. Otherwise, the cognitive measures were uncorrelated, suggesting that they reflected different underlying traits. All traits except discrimination and reversal learning speed ran in families to a substantial extent. Using a model selection approach, we found evidence that natal brood size and developmental telomere attrition (the extent to which the birds' erythrocyte telomeres shortened in early life, an integrative measure of developmental stress) were related to several adult cognitive measures. Results are discussed with respect to the best way of measuring avian cognitive abilities, and the utility of developmental telomere attrition as a predictor of adult outcomes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-248
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognition
  • Developmental stress
  • Impulsivity
  • Intelligence
  • Learning
  • Starlings
  • Telomeres


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