The role of animal cognition in human-wildlife interactions

Madeleine Goumas, Neeltje Boogert and Laura Kelley from Project C-Gull recently wrote a review article on wild animal cognition, teaming up with Victoria Lee and Alex Thornton from Cornish Jackdaws.

Humans place an enormous amount of pressure on wildlife. Wild animals, unlike their hugely populous domesticated counterparts, are faring badly. It is estimated that over half of the world’s wildlife has been lost in recent decades, with human activity squarely to blame. As the world’s human population increases, wild animals are likely to encounter people more frequently, with evermore intense competition for food and space.

Apart from humans’ worldwide domination of resources, the main thing that sets humans apart from other species, from a wild animal’s point of view, is that they vary greatly in their behaviour. In some areas, humans may completely ignore animals, and animals would benefit more from ignoring them in return than they would from being fearful of them. In some areas, there may be humans who care for animals and provide food for them; in times of food scarcity, humans may be an invaluable resource. However, humans can also be dangerous, viewing animals either as prey or as competitors for their livestock or crops, or simply as a nuisance. Knowing when it is safe to stay alongside, or even approach, humans, is a real challenge.

A herring gull helping itself to leftover pizza at a restaurant in Falmouth. Conflict between humans and herring gulls often occurs because of food. Photo by Emma Inzani.

An appropriate response to humans is further complicated by the fact that many animals have not evolved alongside people or other large predators; these animals are often endemic to remote islands, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction when they fail to recognise human hunters as a threat. Furthermore, in places where humans pose no threat, if animals do not distinguish between humans and other large, predatory mammals then they may never fully relax around people. An animal’s ability to distinguish humans from other species, and certain humans from other humans, is likely to be key to successful navigation of human-dominated environments.

Factors that may affect wild animals’ responses to humans. Reproduced with permission.

Something that is often overlooked is that, even within species and populations, individuals vary in their behaviour and cognitive abilities, meaning that some individuals fare better than others in response to human disturbance. However, the causes of this variation among individuals is not well understood, and we hope that future research will reveal the relative importance of genetics and life experience in wild animals’ responses to humans. We also still don’t know how important natural selection is in producing individuals that tolerate human presence, or if certain individuals are more likely to settle in human-dominated areas because they are already more able to deal with human disturbance. Additionally, the ability to learn allows many animals to alter their behaviour and become either more or less tolerant of people. Detailed studies that track a large number of individuals from birth and throughout adulthood, although challenging, would begin to provide answers to these questions.

Ideally, instead of just identifying trends and problems, we would like to be able to do something about the negative consequences of human-wildlife interactions. Without understanding the kinds of cues animals use, their motivations for interacting, and how easily they learn about people, it would be difficult to come up with strategies to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and design targeted conservation measures. There is potential to use wild animals’ responses to certain cues and their ability to learn as a way of “training” animals to behave more appropriately. However, humans have a lot of potential to change their behaviour too, to create a safer environment both for themselves and for wild animals.

Our review article is published in Frontiers in Psychology and can be found here.

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