Behavioral Flexibility

What is behavioral flexibility?
Behavioral flexibility, or having a diverse behavioral repertoire that allows animals to respond in a number of ways to novel situations, is a critically important area of research. Given human-induced rapid environmental change, it is imperative that we understand which cognitive and behavioral mechanisms could explain why certain animals are capable of persisting in changing environments. Inhibition control, or the ability to discard irrelevant, previously known information in order to approach or solve a problem, has been studied in a number of animal species and is thought to facilitate an animal's ability to behave flexibly. The concept of inhibition control (also known as inhibitory control and self-control) is correlated with other inhibitors of innovation (e.g., conservatism, conformity; see Brosnan and Hopper, 2014). Inhibition control is highly important for animals living in changing environments. In changing environments, animals may need to inhibit previous knowledge to find solutions to novel problems. Inhibition control has been studied in a wide-array of animals using various problem-solving tasks (see MacLean et al., 2014).

ABC Lab Research
Sarah Daniels completed her Master's degree in Zoology at the University of Wyoming in December 2014, and her research explored if raccoons in captivity exhibited behavioral flexibility and inhibition control using a multi-access puzzle box that had three solutions (i.e., door, latch, window) that individuals could solve to retrieve a food reward. Once a raccoon successfully solved a solution, researchers would lock it, thus forcing the raccoon to use a different solution to retrieve the food reward. Sarah found that most individuals were able to inhibit previously learned information used to solve the problem, and innovate novel solutions in order to retrieve the food reward (e.g., a raccoon would no longer use the door solution and instead use the latch when the door was no longer a viable option).

Figure 2. Possible outcomes of participation across all three nights. On the first night, all three solutions are available and the raccoon must open the same solution three times to continue to the second night. On the second night, the solution from the previous night is locked; only two available solutions remain. The raccoon must open a second solution three times to continue to the final night of participation. On the final night, only the solution the raccoon has not opened yet is unlocked. (Figure from Daniels et al., in prep.)

Behavioral flexibility of a generalist carnivore. S.E., Daniels, Fanelli, R.E., Gilbert, A., Benson-Amram, S. in prep.

Brosnan & Hopper (2014).
MacLean et al. (2014).