4/01/2015 Peter Durantine

Integrative Research and Discovering the Psychology of Turtles

At the intersection of biology and psychology, you will find Tim Roth.

Trained as a biologist, the assistant professor of psychology came to Franklin & Marshall College three years ago to research how biology influences behavior in animals.

"I used to study spatial memory in chickadees," Roth said, relaxing in his office one morning. "Their spatial memory is far superior to our own. They remember hundreds of thousands of things and where they put them in their environment. We can't do that. We forget our keys."

Recently, Roth, along with Professor of Biology Aaron Krochmal of Washington College in Maryland, published a groundbreaking paper, "The Role of Age-Specific Learning and Experience for Turtles Navigating a Changing Landscape," which made the Feb. 2, 2015, cover of the journal Current Biology.

"We show that turtles respond to habitat loss by navigating to permanent habitat using highly precise paths. These paths are learned as juveniles during a critical period lasting three years," Roth said. "This is the first evidence that learning during a critical period may be important for how animals respond to changing environments."

  • Professor Tim Roth discusses his study of turtles navigating a changing landscape in the era of climate change. Professor Tim Roth discusses his study of turtles navigating a changing landscape in the era of climate change. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

Roth said his approach to research, combining biology and psychology for a broader understanding of behavior, is a departure from academia's sometimes narrow focus on subject matters -- so-called silo thinking -- and part of a growing field of research focused on integrating ideas from multiple disciplines.

"I've been involved with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and integrative workshops trying, particularly with behavioral science, to get the NSF to realize that we need to start funding these more integrative, more large scale projects," Roth said. "We can understand a lot more about how the world works when we can make connections."

In this occasional feature called "Three Questions," Roth discusses integrative academics and research, the importance of understanding animal behavior, and where his research will take him next.

Integrative research is a liberal arts experience, but how effective is it?

I study how behavior works from a mechanistic standpoint -- how biology makes behavior and how behavior itself has larger-scale implications for ecological and evolutionary processes. Being in a psychology department, where we are focused on behavior, is the key, because we think broadly. From a human perspective, we call the study of behavior psychology. I come at it from an animal perspective, but the processes are the same. It is the integrative nature of the study that is so important. If you go way, way back in science, scientists were Renaissance-type people. They studied everything. But we have become so specialized that we're just in these little silos and we only focus on our tiny little world and we miss the bigger picture. It's not a good way to think, and it's not a good way to do science. What I try to do is integrate different levels of analysis.

Why is it important to understand how animals respond to their changing environments?

I argue that it's the interaction with those changing environments that is key for the evolution of advanced cognition. You can solve problems and solutions physiologically. For example, if you live in a cold or hot environment, you change your physiology to be more efficient at putting on fat or retaining water.

Alternatively, you can take the behavioral approach. Using the brain is more rapid, so you can respond more quickly and more accurately as the environment changes. The animals that can process things cognitively and deal with those changes are going to be the ones that do better. But to change your physiology, to change the small-scale mechanisms that happen in the body, that takes generations to do.

From a basic, pragmatic view, as humans affect global climate change we expect increases in the rates of change to the environment. From a conservation perspective, if we can understand how animals interact with those changes, and particularly from a behavioral perspective, we can understand what they need to know and what they need in their environment to respond to global climate change. We can do a better job at conservation.

In turtles, we have found that juveniles have a critical learning period: their first three years. If they don't learn where to go, if they don't learn how to get from the ponds that dry up to their permanent water sources, they're going to die. If we use conservation techniques to help them, but do not allow them the experience of getting from dried-up ponds to permanent water sources, then they can't learn or adapt to the environment.

Where do you go next with your research?

There are three main steps. The first is to look at the turtle's brain to understand how the brain changes from age 3 to age 4. What is happening in the brain that allows them to learn these patterns as a 3-year-old, but not as a 4-year-old?

Another direction is focusing on conservation, to try and make a difference in how people manage these sorts of animals. It's not just turtles. We do this with birds, snakes, rodents -- all of the techniques we traditionally use in conservation assume that there is no learning and no memory. Just put the critters out there and they're good, right? Conservationists don't think there could be learning or teaching. That's something we really need to focus on just from an ethical standpoint.

The third is to understand how these turtles perceive their world. I'm hopeful that we can get at the idea of turtles having a cognitive map. That sort of bigger-scale cognitive processing would be really interesting to observe in these animals. 

  • F&M Assistant Professor of Psychology Tim Roth, along with Professor of Biology Aaron Krochmal of Washington College in Maryland, published a groundbreaking paper, "The Role of Age-Specific Learning and Experience for Turtles Navigating a Changing Landscape," which made the Feb. 2, 2015, cover of the journal Current Biology. F&M Assistant Professor of Psychology Tim Roth, along with Professor of Biology Aaron Krochmal of Washington College in Maryland, published a groundbreaking paper, "The Role of Age-Specific Learning and Experience for Turtles Navigating a Changing Landscape," which made the Feb. 2, 2015, cover of the journal Current Biology. Image Credit: Melissa Hess
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