Behaviour 2019
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Genetic basis of individual variation in spatial cognitive abilities in food-caching chickadees 
Vladimir Pravosudov1, Carrie Branch2, Georgy Semenov3, Dominique Wagner3, Benjamin Sonnenberg1, Angela Pitera1, Eli Bridge4, Scott Taylor3. 1University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV, United States; 2Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, United States; 3University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO, United States; 4University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, United States

Inter- and intra-specific differences in cognitive abilities have been hypothesized to evolve by natural selection. Under strong selection, individual variation in cognitive abilities should be associated with differences in fitness. Cognition, however, is a complex trait affected by both environment and experience and its genetic architecture remains poorly known, particularly in wild systems. We used whole genome data to investigate the genetic basis of individual variation in spatial cognitive abilities in wild food-caching mountain chickadees. We used genome-wide association and machine learning approaches to assess regions of genetic divergence in birds that performed best and worst on a spatial cognitive task. Genetic variation explained ca. 90% of variation in spatial cognitive abilities with major differences associated with significant divergence in specific genome regions and candidate genes involved in neuron growth and development. Our findings provide a critical link connecting individual variation in spatial cognitive abilities with differences in genetic architecture, fitness and natural selection.