Yuxiang Liu, Lainy B. Day, Kyle Summers, and Sabrina S. Burmeister
A fundamental question in cognitive science is whether an animal can use a cognitive map. A cognitive map is a mental representation of the external world, and knowledge of one’s place in this world, that can be used to determine efficient routes to any destination. Many birds and mammals are known to employ a cognitive map, but whether other vertebrates can create a cognitive map is less clear. Amphibians are capable of using beacons, gradients and landmarks when navigating, and many are proficient at homing. Yet only one prior study directly tested for a cognitive map in amphibians, with negative results. Poison frogs exhibit unusually complex social and spatial behaviors and are capable of long-distance homing after displacement, suggesting that they may be using complex spatial navigation strategies in nature. Here, we trained the poison frog Dendrobates auratus in a modified Morris water maze that was designed to suppress thigmotaxis to the maze wall, promoting exploration of the arena. In our moat maze, the poison frogs were able to use a configuration of visual cues to find the hidden platform. Moreover, we demonstrate that they chose direct paths to the goal from multiple random initial positions, a hallmark of a cognitive map. The performance of the frogs in the maze was qualitatively similar to that of rodents, suggesting that the potential to evolve a cognitive map is an evolutionarily conserved trait of vertebrates.