Research Topic

Cognition and Adaptation to Urban Environments

About this Research Topic

Urbanization frequently causes strong discrepancies between organism phenotypes and their environment. Although evolutionary mechanisms may help some species to adapt to urban environments, the changes associated with urbanization can be so rapid and drastic that evolution may not allow the timely establishment of a new phenotype/environment match. Cognition regulates how animals collect, store and use information about their environment. By allowing organisms to learn responses to novel challenges, and to select resources and micro-habitats that better match their phenotypes, cognitive processes may be an important component of the arsenal of options that organisms can use to adaptively respond to urbanization.

However, whether and how variation in cognition alters species or individual responses to urbanization remains an open question. Cognition is expected to respond to natural selection if sufficient heritable variation exists, and urban populations may express cognitive traits that differ from their rural counterparts, e.g. if these traits favor their success in cities. Urban areas may also filter species or individuals based on their cognitive abilities, so that those with the ability to flexibly respond to urban conditions may be favored. Importantly, cognitive processes may also affect evolutionary responses, either facilitating or hindering adaptive evolution in urban environments. They may, for example, reduce the risk of population extinction, giving natural selection an opportunity to move the population closer to a new adaptive peak. Alternatively, by favoring plastic responses to environmental changes, cognition may allow populations to escape natural selection, weakening the strength of selection on morphological or physiological traits. Cognition may thus play an important role in adaptation to urban environments, though empirical evidence testing these mechanisms is still lacking.

The aim of this special topic is to bring together different pieces of research that investigate the relationship between urbanization and cognition through mechanistic or correlative approaches. Since animal responses to urban environments often rely on processes that predict how organisms respond to new environments in general, studies investigating the role of cognition in the colonization of non-urban new environments would also be informative. We aim to attract studies across a broad taxonomic range (invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds) to investigate the generality of these effects. We are especially interested in:

• mechanistic studies investigating how cognition affects an organism’s response to urbanization, and/or how cognition evolves in response to urbanization;
• studies highlighting patterns of variation in cognition associated with urbanization;
• studies considering parallels between the importance of cognition in the colonization of urban environments and in responses to other rapid environmental change or introduction into other types of new environments (e.g., invasive or range expanding species);
• integrative approaches considering how variation in cognition is associated with life history or ecological strategies.

Overall, the novelty of this field of investigation calls for a diversity of approaches at various scales, including experimental and field-based behavioral observations, anatomic and molecular approaches, comparative studies, and theoretical and modeling approaches, all of which we hope to include in this special topic.


Keywords: behavioral flexibility, behavioral plasticity, innovation, learning, urban


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Urbanization frequently causes strong discrepancies between organism phenotypes and their environment. Although evolutionary mechanisms may help some species to adapt to urban environments, the changes associated with urbanization can be so rapid and drastic that evolution may not allow the timely establishment of a new phenotype/environment match. Cognition regulates how animals collect, store and use information about their environment. By allowing organisms to learn responses to novel challenges, and to select resources and micro-habitats that better match their phenotypes, cognitive processes may be an important component of the arsenal of options that organisms can use to adaptively respond to urbanization.

However, whether and how variation in cognition alters species or individual responses to urbanization remains an open question. Cognition is expected to respond to natural selection if sufficient heritable variation exists, and urban populations may express cognitive traits that differ from their rural counterparts, e.g. if these traits favor their success in cities. Urban areas may also filter species or individuals based on their cognitive abilities, so that those with the ability to flexibly respond to urban conditions may be favored. Importantly, cognitive processes may also affect evolutionary responses, either facilitating or hindering adaptive evolution in urban environments. They may, for example, reduce the risk of population extinction, giving natural selection an opportunity to move the population closer to a new adaptive peak. Alternatively, by favoring plastic responses to environmental changes, cognition may allow populations to escape natural selection, weakening the strength of selection on morphological or physiological traits. Cognition may thus play an important role in adaptation to urban environments, though empirical evidence testing these mechanisms is still lacking.

The aim of this special topic is to bring together different pieces of research that investigate the relationship between urbanization and cognition through mechanistic or correlative approaches. Since animal responses to urban environments often rely on processes that predict how organisms respond to new environments in general, studies investigating the role of cognition in the colonization of non-urban new environments would also be informative. We aim to attract studies across a broad taxonomic range (invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds) to investigate the generality of these effects. We are especially interested in:

• mechanistic studies investigating how cognition affects an organism’s response to urbanization, and/or how cognition evolves in response to urbanization;
• studies highlighting patterns of variation in cognition associated with urbanization;
• studies considering parallels between the importance of cognition in the colonization of urban environments and in responses to other rapid environmental change or introduction into other types of new environments (e.g., invasive or range expanding species);
• integrative approaches considering how variation in cognition is associated with life history or ecological strategies.

Overall, the novelty of this field of investigation calls for a diversity of approaches at various scales, including experimental and field-based behavioral observations, anatomic and molecular approaches, comparative studies, and theoretical and modeling approaches, all of which we hope to include in this special topic.


Keywords: behavioral flexibility, behavioral plasticity, innovation, learning, urban


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

15 September 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

15 September 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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