Individual differences in spatial learning are correlated across tasks but not with stress response behaviour in guppies

Pamela M. Prentice*, Chloe Mnatzaganian, Thomas M. Houslay, Alex Thornton, Alastair J. Wilson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Cognition is vital for carrying out behaviours required for survival and reproduction. Cognitive performance varies between species, but also between individuals within populations. While variation is a prerequisite for natural selection, selection does not act on traits in isolation. The extent to which cognitive traits covary with other aspects of phenotype (e.g. personality traits) may be important in shaping evolutionary dynamics. Here we adopted a multivariate approach to test spatial learning in male Poecilia reticulata and asked whether differences in cognitive performance are associated with (repeatable) differences in stress response behaviour. Functional links between cognitive traits and ‘stress coping style’ have been hypothesized. Furthermore, individual level studies of cognitive performance typically rely on multiple testing paradigms that may themselves be a stressor. There is a risk that variation in stress responsiveness is itself a cause of apparent, but artefactual variance in cognitive ability. Fish repeatedly experienced two spatial learning tasks (maze layouts) and an acute stress response test (open field trial). We found repeatable differences between individuals in performance within and across maze layouts. On average, performance improved with experience in the first maze, consistent with spatial learning, but not in the second. Individuals varied in the trajectory of mean performance with trial number in both mazes, suggesting they differ in ‘learning rate’. Acute stress response behaviour was repeatable but predicted neither average time to solve the maze nor learning rate. We found no support for between-individual correlation between acute stress response and cognitive performance. However, we highlight the possibility that cumulative, chronic stress effects may nevertheless cause declines in performance for some individuals (leading to lack of improvement in mean time to solve the second maze). If so, this may represent a pervasive but difficult challenge for our ability to robustly estimate learning rates in studies of animal cognition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)133-146
Number of pages14
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Publication statusPrint publication - Jun 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • animal behaviour
  • animal personality
  • cognitive performance
  • individual differences
  • Poecilia reticulata
  • spatial learning
  • stress response


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