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Psychology graduate student finds patterns in animal behavior

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NOVEMBER 08, 2012

When Mikel Delgado dropped out of college and moved from the East Coast to California to join a rock band in the ’90s, she had no idea that one day she would study squirrels on the UC Berkeley campus.

Delgado — a third-year graduate student pursuing a doctorate in psychology — heads a squirrel research team in a psychology lab on campus and made headlines last month for her unconventional research with squirrels and cats.

Delgado’s research with the campus fox squirrels found that their food-storing behavior is not random and confused but is actually a calculated decision of where to bury each nut based on its value. A separate study on cats published last month found that people associate different personality traits to cats based on their fur color.

Her journey to researching the furry creatures has been long in the making.

Delgado says she has been obsessed with cats “forever,” and, after years of begging her mother, she finally adopted her first one at age 16.

After facing a college crisis three years into her undergraduate studies with no progress toward graduating, she made the decision to move to California. When the cat she brought with her to the West Coast died, Delgado commemorated him with a tattoo and began volunteering at an animal shelter, where she realized she could make a career out of her passion.

It was at this point that Delgado decided to go back to school, enrolling in California State University, East Bay, where she began studying animals.

After working in a pigeon cognition lab there, she found that she really loved research in the field and decided she wanted to go to graduate school to continue her research, bringing her to UC Berkeley where she now looks at humans and animals.

But before she came to Berkeley, in her senior year at CSU East Bay, Delgado co-authored a study that noted the trend of differing adoption rates for cats based on fur color.

Studies have already shown that black cats and dogs tend to stay in shelters longer than animals with other fur colors, according to Delgado, and her study aimed to understand why. Delgado’s study found that people were more likely to assign positive traits to orange cats and were less likely to assign positive traits to white and tortoise-shelled cats. They were overwhelmingly neutral toward black cats.

Delgado said her study is a starting point for more research because it is not yet clear whether people’s associations of cat color with personality traits is actually based on genetic links between personality and fur color or if they are just based on preconceived notions.

“It’s got people thinking about why black cats don’t get adopted,” she said. “Hopefully people will look more at what is happening in shelters and figure out what can be done to help cats that are not getting adopted.”

Since then, Delgado has shifted her focus to the campus’s notorious squirrel population.

Delgado said that her research with the fox squirrels is a continuation of research begun by Lucia Jacob, the head of the psychology lab, nearly 20 years ago, and Delgado and her team are now expanding the research to do comparative studies with humans.

John Koprowski, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona who is researching the evolution of social and mating systems of squirrels, said that squirrels make excellent models for cognitive evolution because they have to make complicated decisions.

Tree squirrels inhabit a complex environment that requires them to accomplish many tasks essential for survival, which in turn requires fitness and cognitive complexity, according to Koprowski.

Michael Steele, a biology professor at Wilkes University who is looking at the squirrels’ behavior from an ecological point of view, says that he has reached similar conclusions.

Steele, whose research focuses on how the squirrels’ food-storing behavior affects how plant seeds are dispersed, said there are few other animals that actually make decisions about where seeds should be stored. He said the fact that squirrels can make these decisions shows that they have cognitive abilities, and therefore the campus’s research looking at the link between human and squirrel cognition is appropriate.

After completing her doctorate, Delgado hopes to obtain a research or faculty position so that she can continue her studies with humans and animals.

She also hopes to continue a cat behavior consulting business she runs for people experiencing behavioral problems with their cats. Delgado likened her business to the show “My Cat from Hell.”

“Human research is pretty fun,” Delgado said. “I don’t know that I would ever want to do just human research though. I would always want to have something related to animals, even if it’s just looking at the human-animal relationship.”

Pooja Mhatre covers research & ideas. Contact her at [email protected]
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NOVEMBER 08, 2012


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