This Blog is part of our “Get to Know Our Ambassadors” Series. Each week, we’ll highlight a new Ambassador to help students understand more about the diversity of people and research projects available to students.

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What if I told you that being social makes animals smarter? Sounds strange, right? But let me tell you why.

I’m a behavioural ecologist working at the University of Western Australia. My PhD investigates why certain individuals are smarter than others. One of the main theories is that being social is what makes you smarter, also known as the Social Intelligence Hypothesis. Many animals that we consider to be intelligent, like chimps, dolphins and even elephants are all highly social species. The theory makes sense when we think of the challenges that social animals face on a daily basis like recognising and remembering group members and coordinating many different relationships.

To test this theory, I work with local populations of wild magpies. Despite the popular phrase “bird brain”, magpies demonstrate incredibly sophisticated cognitive abilities, including tool-use and recognising human voices. In my research I present the magpies with a series of tasks to measure their cognition (intelligence). I also measure their social connectedness using something called Social Network Analysis, which I always like to think of as a magpie Facebook, because it allows me to figure out who’s friends with who and who doesn’t get along. All this allows me to test whether smarter magpies are indeed more social.

My research is important because it not only provides insight into how animal intelligence evolved, but also shows how animals may be able to use these cognitive skills to behaviourally adapt to our changing world.

I’m paired with the Arludo game Hungry birds. This game is particularly relevant for me because WA magpies are actually the only Australian subspecies that are cooperative breeders. They live in cooperative social groups, and any group members can be involved in feeding young. However, not all group members help. The decision to help is influenced by a variety of factors including group size, age, sex and foraging efficiency.

The game Hungry Birds showcases many of these helping decisions, but more specifically to my research, it involves cognitive abilities such as decision making, memory and learning. The most exciting thing about Hungry Birds is that it allows students to practice raising their own clutch of nestlings and experiment with which strategies result in the most babies surviving to leave the nest.

Animal minds are fascinating! Come join me for a lesson to learn all about how all animals (even humans!) think.

Written by Lizzie Speechley

Lizzie is a behavioural ecologist at the University of Western Australia. Her PhD explores the drivers of individual differences in cognition in the Western Australian magpie. She has also completed her Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching and is a Higher Education Academy Fellow.

Book a virtual incursion with Lizzie!