Attention and individual behavioural variation in small-brained animals – using bumblebees and zebrafish as model systems
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A vital ability for an animal is to filter the constant flow of sensory input from the environment to focus on the most important information. Attention is used to prioritize sensory input for adaptive responses. The role of attention in visual search has been studied extensively in human and non-human primates, but is much less studied in other animals. We looked at attentional mechanisms, especially selective and divided attention where animals focus on multiple cues at the same time, using a visual search paradigm. We targeted bumblebee and zebrafish as model species because they are widely used as tractable models of information processing in comparatively small brains. Bees were required to forage from target and distractor flowers in the presence of predators. We found that bees could selectively attend to certain dimension of the stimuli, and divide their attention to both visual foraging search and predator avoidance tasks simultaneously. Furthermore, bees showed consistent individual differences in foraging strategy; ‘careful’ and ‘impulsive’ strategies exist in individuals of the same colony. From the calculation of foraging rate, it is shown that the best strategy may depend on environmental conditions. We applied a similar behavioural paradigm to zebrafish and found speed-accuracy tradeoffs and consistent individual behavioural differences. We therefore continued to test how individuality influences group choices. In pairs of careful and impulsive fish, the consensus decision is close to the strategy of the careful individual. The present thesis provides implications for the study of animal attention, individuality differences based on attentional strategies, the influence of individuality on animal group choices and an exploration of the evolutionary pressures that favour stable individual differences.
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