Animals must weigh the risks of predation, time, and energy while moving through unpredictable and dynamic substrates. Biomechanics studies locomotion as it varies with the environment. Spatial cognition is used to learn, adapt, and execute routes in complex environments. Both fields study animal movement, yet the two fields have not been integrated. Biomechanical studies focus on the physics of movement, but do not address the impact of learning on biomechanical solutions, such as choosing a simpler or more complex route. Similarly, spatial cognition does not consider the biomechanical costs of route optimization. To understand these decisions, we need to integrate spatial cognition and biomechanics, into what our lab has termed cognitive biomechanics.

Our lab has been recently funded to address such questions as a member of a new research consortium on embodied cognition, led by Dan Koditschek (Penn), also Shu Yang at Penn, and including our lab, Bob Full’s lab at Berkeley, Noah Cowan and Jim Knierim at Hopkins, Yuliy Baryshnikov at Illinois and the whole enterprise funded by a MURI grant from the Army Research Office (2018-2021).

Our approach will be to focus on the important bottleneck of the development of cognitive competencies. Juvenile animals must survive – foraging, escaping predation – as well as an adult, despite being smaller, less powerful and less coordinated (Carrier, 1996). Collaborating with the Bay Area wildlife rescue organization WildCare, we will quantify the development of survival skills (opening nuts, climbing branches) in their captive juveniles. This will answer questions about the CogEvoDevo of problem solving: How does it develop? Can success in new challenges be predicted by individual differences in personality, as in other species? Do individual differences in motor development correlate with other cognitive traits, such as food caching and cache stealing? All of these questions can be answering by careful analysis of video records, using Noldus The XT Observer and Noldus EthoVision XT and most recently, tools such as DeepLabCut.


Hunt , N., Frendberg-Mates, E., Jinn, J., Robin, A. N., Jacobs, L. F., & Full, R. J. (2017). Squirrels running on compliant branches: When to leap? Presented at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, New Orleans, LA.

Waismeyer, A. S. , & Jacobs, L. F. (2013). The emergence of flexible spatial strategies in young children. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 232–242.