Chiara Babinski

McGill University
Candidat M.Sc.

superviseur(e): Mélanie Guigueno
Jonathan Verreault, Université du Québec à Montréal
Début: 2023-01-04


Complexity of free-ranging movement and contaminant levels in relation to spatial learning and memory performance in urbanized ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis)
The ability to roam freely and return to a specific location is an essential survival skill shared by all the animal kingdom. Earth trekking animals essentially move around in a two-dimensional space on the planet’s surface. Birds on the other hand travel in complex three-dimensional spaces and migrate over vast distances without losing their way. Indeed, birds are the most abundant taxonomic class amongst migrating species and exhibit complex behaviours that depend on spatial cognition. However, the bulk of our knowledge to date on spatial cognition stems primarily from work done on mammalian species, mostly rodents. Further research is thus required to better document the neural mechanisms that regulate bird spatial behaviours. Spatial learning and spatial memory, both components of spatial cognition, are strongly associated to hippocampal function and morphology. In fact, birds known for high reliance on spatial memory in their natural habitat, exhibit more developed hippocampal morphological features and better performance in spatial memory tests in a laboratory setting. However, no previous studies with avian species have attempted to directly compare data and metrics extracted from a natural setting to spatial memory performance under controlled conditions. Therefore, using the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) as avian model, we propose to compare the complexity of free-ranging space use patterns to spatial test performance in laboratory setting. In a first phase, birds (n=10) will be tagged with GPS trackers and set free. After 10 days, birds will be recaptured and allowed to acclimate for 2 days in the avian housing facility before being submitted to two hippocampus-dependant spatial tasks based on food searching in a maze. Furthermore, since it is well established that bird brain function is particularly vulnerable to deleterious effects of many anthropogenic chemicals, we will test for contaminant levels present in both brain and liver samples. Statistical analysis will compare the GPS tracking data, memory test results and contaminant levels. The anticipated results of this study are expected to provide new incites into the mechanisms regulating spatial cognition in birds and new tools to help improve environmental policies to protect wildlife and human health.  


Spatial cognition, spatial memory, spatial learning, ecotoxicology, hippocampus, ring-billed gulls, GPS tracking, wild birds, captive studies