Home > Papers from 2014 > A unified theory of animal navigation

A unified theory of animal navigation

Navigation has been well-studied in the lab, using rodents and in the field with pigeons and insects. Here Jacobs and Menzel attempt to establish a framework by which we can integrate research in these three fields. 

Abstract: Space is continuous. But the communities of researchers that study the cognitive map in non-humans are strangely divided, with debate over its existence found among behaviorists but not neuroscientists. To reconcile this and other debates within the field of navigation, we return to the concept of the parallel map theory, derived from data on hippocampal function in laboratory rodents. Here the cognitive map is redefined as the integrated map, which is a construction of dual mechanisms, one based on directional cues (bearing map) and the other on positional cues (sketch map). We propose that the dual navigational mechanisms of pigeons, the navigational map and the familiar area map, could be homologous to these mammalian parallel maps; this has implications for both research paradigms. Moreover, this has implications for the lab. To create a bearing map (and hence integrated map) from extended cues requires self-movement over a large enough space to sample and model these cues at a high resolution. Thus a navigator must be able to move freely to map extended cues; only then should the weighted hierarchy of available navigation mechanisms shift in favor of the integrated map. Because of the paucity of extended cues in the lab, the flexible solutions allowed by the integrated map should be rare, despite abundant neurophysiological evidence for the existence of the machinery needed to encode and map extended cues through voluntary movement. Not only do animals need to map extended cues but they must also have sufficient information processing capacity. This may require a specific ontogeny, in which the navigator’s nervous system is exposed to naturally complex spatial contingencies, a circumstance that occurs rarely, if ever, in the lab. For example, free-ranging, flying animals must process more extended cues than walking animals and for this reason alone, the integrated map strategy may be found more reliably in some species. By taking concepts from ethology and the parallel map theory, we propose a path to directly integrating the three great experimental paradigms of navigation: the honeybee, the homing pigeon and the laboratory rodent, towards the goal of a robust, unified theory of animal navigation.

Jacobs, L. F., & Menzel, R. (2014). Navigation outside of the box: what the lab can learn from the field and what the field can learn from the lab. Movement Ecology, 2(1), 3.

Categories: Papers from 2014
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