Our research group studies the adaptive value of choices – about food, about routes in space, even about social relationships - about balancing options with imperfect information in a noisy world.
A large focus of our lab is the study of navigating choices in space. All mobile animals track the locations of prey, predators, mates and competitors. Many animals do this using olfaction, our current focus in this area. Our new funding to study this behavior in diverse species. (http://www.dailycal.org/2015/09/28/uc-berkeley-professor-team-receive-grant-to-study-smell/) will allow us to study this behavior in humans, pet dogs, cockroaches, terrestrial molluscs and hermit crabs, working closely with mouse and fly neuroscientists as well as computational neuroscientists. Our goal is to identify the universal algorithms used by animals to navigate in space using odors. We are also expanding our studies of navigation to what we are calling ‘cognitive biomechanics’. Studying wild squirrels and laboratory rodents, we are interested in how an animal integrates its spatial knowledge of possible route choices with its knowledge of its ability to move efficiently in different biomechanical substrates. We collaborate in this work with Robert Full and his students in Integrative Biology (http://polypedal.berkeley.edu/).
We also study foraging decisions wild fox squirrels, both for the solitary squirrel and for the squirrel making decisions in competitive social contexts. Fox squirrels make thousands of foraging decisions – should I eat or cache this nut? – during the critical fall harvest of acorns and other tree seeds. Such seeds are hidden individually yet squirrels cannot defend the areas where they are hidden. Instead, they rely on careful economic decisions on which nuts to hide and where to hide them, as well as spatial memory for cache locations. Finally, they also steal caches made by other squirrels, which is an area of our current interest. We study these questions year-round using computational models of behavior as well as experimental and observational studies of a small population of individually-marked, habituated fox squirrels on the Berkeley campus.
In earlier work, our group studied how knowledge of a species’s cognitive niche (the ecology of its species, sex and age) can predict patterns of cognitive abilities and brain structure, in particular the hippocampus. We formalized such patterns in the parallel map theory, an evolutionary model of navigation and the evolution of the hippocampus in vertebrates (Jacobs & Schenk, 2003). Here Edward Tolman’s cognitive map is an integration of parallel spatial representations of space, the bearing and the sketch maps, constructed by complementary hippocampal subfields. This creates a flexible and robust cognitive structure for orientation in mammals and we have extended this analysis to birds and other vertebrates (Jacobs & Menzel, 2014). Recently, I have re-interpreted the parallel map theory of hippocampal function in light of olfactory navigation, proposing that the main function of the olfactory system of vertebrates is to form the foundation of the cognitive map, with a robust and flexible parallel map architecture (Jacobs, 2012).
(updated, December 2015)
Delgado, M.M. and Jacobs, L.F. (in press). Inaccessibility of reinforcement increases persistence and signaling behavior in the fox squirrel, Sciurus niger. Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Jacobs, L. F., Arter, J., Cook, A., & Sulloway, F. J. (2015). Olfactory orientation and navigation in humans. PLoS ONE, 10(6) e0129387. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0129387.s001.
Delgado, M.M., Nichols, M., Petrie, D.J. & Jacobs, L.F. (2014) Fox squirrels match food assessment and cache effort to value and scarcity. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e92892. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092892.s003.
Evan L. MacLean, et al. (2014) The evolution of self-control. PNAS, 111(20), E2140–8. doi:10.1073/pnas.1323533111
Jacobs, L.F. & Randolf Menzel (2014) Navigation outside the box: what the lab can learn from the field and what the field can learn from the lab. Movement Ecology 2: 3. DOI 10.1186/10.1186/2051-3933-2-3.
Jacobs, L. F. (2012). From chemotaxis to the cognitive map: the function of olfaction. PNAS, 109, 10693–10700.
Jacobs, Lucia F., and Schenk, Françoise. (2003). Unpacking the cognitive map: the parallel map theory of hippocampal function. Psychological Review 110, 285-315.