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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Spatial associative memory in pigeons Willson, Robert James


A series of six experiments was conducted examining spatial memory in pigeons. Spatial memory in this species has traditionally been characterized as poor in relation to other avian species, and this has led to speculations about adaptive specializations in spatial memory systems. The results from the experiments conducted in the present thesis in which novel procedures were used to study pigeons’ spatial memory suggest that this characterization has been a result of the experimental procedures used to assess spatial memory, rather than an inherent lack of ability. The procedures that were employed in the current research are also novel in that they are consistent with a theoretical memory distinction proposed by Gaffan (1974) between recognition and associative memory. Recognition memory tasks are procedures in which only the to-be-remembered stimulus is presented during the study phase of a trial. The subject must subsequently discriminate between that stimulus and novel or unfamiliar stimuli during the retention test. Associative memory tasks are procedures in which all stimuli to be presented during the retention test are also presented during the study phase of the trial. In these tasks the subject must identify the target from among the presented set of stimuli and remember its identity when subsequently reexposed to the same stimulus set during the retention test. In the current research, pigeons performed well with extended retention intervals when tested on an associative memory task but not when tested on a recognition memory task. The birds exposed to four spatial locations and given a brief interval to ascertain which one of the four locations was rewarded showed excellent retention for the rewarded location, for periods of up to 72 hr. This level of retention is far greater than that observed in previous spatial memory tasks with this species. The procedures that were employed here are somewhat similar to procedures that have been used to study spatial memory in food-storing birds (Brodbeck, Burack & Shettleworth, in press). Although comparisons across experiments and procedures must be viewed with caution, the present results suggest that under some conditions, pigeons apparently perform better than food-storers on this type of task. As such the findings from the current research program have important implications in relation to the issue of adaptive specializations in memory systems and for the comparative study of spatial memory.

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