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 wildlife rescue organizations, such as the Marin County organization WildCare, we will bring orphaned juvenile squirrels into the lab for a period of intensive training and study. In our Squirrel School, juveniles will have the opportunity to leap, forage and cache nuts. By varying their experience from normal to highly enriched, we will address questions about the CogEvoDevo of innovation: how does it develop? What factors influence innovation? How does motor development impinge on cognitive development?   


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.