Early predation risk shapes adult learning and cognitive flexibility

Catarina Vila Pouca*, David J. Mitchell, Jérémy Lefèvre, Regina Vega-Trejo, Alexander Kotrschal

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Predation risk during early ontogeny can impact developmental trajectories and permanently alter adult phenotypes. Such phenotypic plasticity often leads to adaptive changes in traits involved in anti-predator responses. While plastic changes in cognition may increase survival, it remains unclear whether early predation experience shapes cognitive investment and drives developmental plasticity in cognitive abilities. Here, we show that predation risk during early ontogeny induces developmental plasticity in two cognitive domains. We reared female guppies Poecilia reticulata with and without predator cues and tested their adult cognitive abilities. We found that females reared under simulated predation took longer to learn a simple association task, yet outperformed animals reared without predation threat in a reversal learning task testing cognitive flexibility. These results show that predation pressure during ontogeny shapes adult cognitive abilities, which we argue is likely to be adaptive. Our study highlights the important role of predator-mediated developmental plasticity on cognitive investment in natural populations and the general role of plasticity in cognitive performance

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1477-1486
Issue number9
Early online date21 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


  • behavioural flexibility
  • developmental stress
  • guppy
  • phenotypic plasticity
  • predator cues


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