Naam HMG de Waele MSc

OrganisatieDepartement Dierwetenschappen
OrganisatieDepartement Dierwetenschappen


Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by how nature works, with a particular interest in how animals think. I love exploring what animals are capable of and discovering how intelligent they are. For that reason, all the decisions I made up to this point have in the pursuance of an academic career in behavioural ecology.

In the past, I completed my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Ghent with a thesis studying "Ovarian cycling in Bactrian camels", in the Zoo of Toronto, Canada. Parallel to my Bachelor studies, I took several courses on animal behaviour. I hold a certificate of Therapist in dog behaviour as well as Dog trainer. I also taught classes at a Dog training school and started my own company, conducting in-home assessment and re-orientation of dogs with problem behaviour. This gave me to opportunity to gain valuable experience in teaching humans, as well as practical experience in training animals.  After finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I continued my education with a Master’s degree in Animal Sciences at Wageningen University. I completed a thesis at Behavioural Ecology looking into “Dog-directed parenting and optimism bias in dogs”, and a thesis at Adaptation Physiology studying “the influence of boar pheromone spray on oestrus behaviour in female pigs”. During the last stage of my Master’s I wrote a PhD proposal for which I received the WIAS Graduate Programme Grant 2020. Shortly thereafter, in January 2021, I joined the Behavioural Ecology group at Wageningen University as a PhD student. During my PhD I will be studying the effect of predation on the cognitive landscape in Trinidadian guppies (Poecilia reticulata).

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The evolution of cognition via predation: an experimental approach in guppies (Poecilia reticulata)

A key objective in modern biology is understanding the evolutionary processes that underlie the substantial variation in behaviour and life-history traits in animals. Surprisingly, the causes for the striking variation in cognition across species are still poorly understood. Comparative studies suggest that predation pressure imposes strong selection on cognitive evolution, yet experimental tests are thus far lacking. To fill this knowledge gap, I will perform several experiments to test how predation shapes the evolution of cognition. I will use Trinidadian guppies (Poecilia reticulata), a species that naturally occurs in high and low predation areas and is therefore ideal to link cognitive performance to an ecological and evolutionary relevant framework. I will use recently developed selection lines for survival under predation, allowing me to identify the link between cognition and predation in an unprecedented way. Since cognition consists of different domains, which are likely impacted by predation in different ways, I will investigate several key domains. The fish will be subjected to state-of-the-art cognitive assays that make use of novel technology. While domain-specific results are exciting on their own, the most innovative aspect will be the opportunity to construct “cognitive landscapes”. These landscapes allow for complex comparisons, providing opportunities to uncover intricate links between cognitive domains and underlying structures of cognition. My project fills a void in modern biology by providing causal conclusions about the evolution of cognition and by contributing to our understanding of how loss of predators can have downstream effects on traits essential to cope with environmental challenges.

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