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Animal expertise: mechanisms, ecology and evolution

Dukas, Reuven
Animal behaviour 2019 v.147 pp. 199-210
animal behavior, cognition, ecology, environmental factors, evolution, experts, humans, memory, motivation
Expertise consists of the features that allow individuals with extensive experience on a given complex task to show superior performance on that task compared to novices. While expertise has been investigated mostly in humans, it is highly relevant for other species as well because it can have strong effects on fitness. Moreover, studying expertise in nonhumans can help us understand human expertise. Several features that distinguish experts within their domain of expertise from novices include (1) greater long-term memory, (2) larger capacity of working memory, (3) better ability to focus attention on the most relevant concurrent tasks, (4) superior ability to anticipate, perceive and comprehend the relevant elements in one's surroundings, (5) quicker and better decisions, and (6) faster and more coordinated motor movements. The development of expertise follows a characteristic pattern of gradual improvement in performance over extended periods devoted to practising a given complex task. Heritable variation in a few traits can affect the rate of expertise acquisition and its peak levels. These traits include motivation to practise, perseverance, basic cognitive abilities such as attention span, working memory capacity, learning rates and memory retention, and various physiological, anatomical and morphological features. Key environmental factors influencing expertise development are parental and social settings, which may encourage investment in the extended practice necessary for achieving superior performance on complex tasks. Future work on the evolutionary biology of expertise should focus on the yet unknown neurobiological mechanisms that underlie it, heritable variation in the traits that enable expertise and their genetic basis, further quantifications of expertise acquisition in natural settings, the fitness consequences of the traits that facilitate top expert performance, and the ecological and evolutionary consequences of expertise.