The Cognition of `Nuisance’ Species

A new study was in released in May, The Cognition of `Nuisance’ Species, by Lisa P. Barretta, Lauren Stantona and Sarah Benson-Amram in which the researchers looked at how animals respond to new or changing environments. They state that although many species are currently in decline, other species are thriving in human-altered habitats by taking advantage of new resources and opportunities associated with anthropogenic disturbance. Yet, as a result, these same species are often in conflict with humans and treated as a nuisance.


In the greater Mara ecosystem there is a war of space. While the population in Mara Elephant Project’s area of operation grows the traditional elephant rangeland declines. Elephants are coming into contact with humans more and some elephants that MEP has collared and monitored over the last several years have found crop raiding to be a good alternative to their diminishing grasslands.

The study takes a direct look at what is known about the cognition of ‘nuisance’ species and ‘problem’ individuals to shed light on the struggles of coexistence with humans along disturbed landscapes like the Mara.

They take an in-depth look at several cognitive abilities that are hypothesized to be of critical importance for species that are successfully utilizing human-altered environments, including neophilia, boldness, categorization, innovation, memory, learning, social learning and behavioral flexibility, and examine evidence that these cognitive abilities may also bring animals into conflict with humans.

Neophilia is an attraction to novelty and is likely a critical component of the success of animals in human-altered landscapes. Attraction to novelty, such as anthropogenic foods or human-made structures, helps animals to take advantage of new resources. Neophilia in response to novel food items may facilitate range expansion into new environments.

Boldness is when an animal is confronted with a potentially risky situation in an anthropogenic environment, having a bolder temperament, or a willingness to take risks in novel situations enables the animal to capitalize on new resources. This willingness to take risks likely means that an animal will more frequently come into conflict with humans.

Categorization is the ability to perceive, discriminate and classify cues that underlies an animal’s response to novel stimuli. It allows animals to adjust their response to novel items in their environment.

Innovation may increase the ability of an individual to modify or expand its ecological niche leading to the successful invasion of novel environments and adaptation to urbanization. This is because innovation allows animals to solve novel problems thereby opening new avenues of survival in otherwise challenging environments. Solving problems in an anthropogenic environment typically involves the exploitation of anthropogenic entities, and inherently creates conflict with humans.

Nuisance species undoubtedly learn to capitalize on anthropogenic resources via positive experiences with humans or human entities. Successful encounters may range from the more inconspicuous, such as learning to raid crops or garbage at night, to the more risk-prone, such as taking shelter in anthropogenic structures or stealing from humans. Similarly, increased exposure to negative or dangerous stimuli introduced by humans, such as toxins or traps, may strengthen the ability of nuisance animals to evade persecution in the future via learning. The more salient the cue or experience, the faster it will be learned, thus the payoffs and costs experienced via association with humans often result in effective nuisance behaviors.

Various forms of memory likely affect the success of nuisance species. Spatial memory is important in navigating complex anthropogenic environments.

Social Learning is when animals copy the behavior of others when the cost of individual learning is high, or when there is moderate predictability in the environment. Many species learn both adaptive and maladaptive behaviors from others, and thus social learning and cultural transmission of behavior has become an important consideration in contemporary conservation and management of wildlife.

Behavioral flexibility is when plastic behavioral responses enable animals to cope with change or devise novel solutions to problems in their environment. Individuals with increased behavioral flexibility may possess larger brains and are equipped to readily recognize and utilize unfamiliar resources.

These cognitive traits in animals and more specifically for MEP, elephants, play a role in current mitigation strategies that have been developed to address human-wildlife conflict. MEP has what we call a human-elephant conflict toolkit. This is a “kit” of MEP’s best practices that includes both techniques and technologies to mitigate human-elephant conflict. While MEP’s tools such as drones, the helicopter, chili fences, flashing light fences, are all currently working to help mitigate human-elephant conflict, we are constantly working on newer, more effective forms of conflict mitigation.

It’s interesting that in this study, they concluded that the same cognitive abilities that aid animals in coping with human-altered environments may paradoxically predispose animals to conflict with humans. Neophilia, innovation and behavioral flexibility are likely sources of conflict with humans, and various learning mechanisms undermine current conflict mitigation strategies.

The study states that more research on the cognition of nuisance species so that we may better understand their risk perception, cue interpretation and how general cognitive mechanisms may be changing over time as animals are exposed to environmental disturbance and change. Mara Elephant Project has two human-elephant conflict reporting forms that help us to collect data on the effectiveness of our mitigation techniques and technologies. MEP is a data driven organization that believes our data will tell a story over time that will help us to constantly be a leader in mitigation techniques and technologies in the Mara.

It’s extremely important to also note that in this study they considered the role that human behavior and perception of animals might play in either worsening or lessening conflict with wildlife. They state that it is critical to note that whether or not an animal is viewed as a nuisance is a matter of human perspective and this perspective has significant consequences for wildlife and increasing our comprehension of the cognitive mechanisms underlying adaptation to anthropogenic change, we can better communicate our lessons to the public, fostering empathy for these clever species that may otherwise continue to be considered mere pests.

This is one of the pillars of Mara Elephant Project’s human-elephant conflict toolkit: community education and engagement. We have found that having a ranger presence within communities in high conflict areas of the Mara ecosystem instills a greater understanding of the need for elephant protection. We meet with communities, we help them protect their crops with chili fences and flashing light fences. They see our rangers, day and night, using drones or flash bangs to keep elephants away from their crops. MEP has a hotline that community members can call at any time to report a nuisance elephant. All of this engagement and education has significantly increased MEP’s effectiveness in mitigating human-elephant conflict and instilled a communal-type atmosphere that protecting elephants and living peacefully alongside them is the best route.