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Christopher Sturdy

Christopher Sturdy, BA (Hons) University of Windsor, MA, PhD (Queen's University)

Professor

Science

Psychology

About Me

Chris Sturdy completed a B.A. in Psychology at the University of Windsor in 1994 where he studied spatial memory in rats with Jerry Cohen. He then completed an M.A. in 1997 and a Ph.D. in 2000 in Psychology at Queen's University where he examined songbird bioacoustics, cognition and neuroscience with Ron Weisman. From 2000 to 2001, Sturdy worked at the Duke University Medical Center with Rich Mooney (Department of Neurobiology) and Duke University with Steve Nowicki (Department of Biology) where he examined the cellular basis of song production. In 2002 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Alberta, promoted to Associate Professor of Psychology in 2008, and promoted to Professor in 2013. He is currently Chair of the Department of Psychology and a member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.

Sturdy studies songbird communication and cognition in an integrative fashion, combining several approaches to understand the biological and cognitive bases of underlying songbird acoustic communication (See research description, below, or on the Songbird Neuroethology Laboratory website). Sturdy uses several empirical approaches, from bioacoustic analyses of vocalizations, operant discrimination paradigms and field playback experiments to electrophysiological and neuroanatomical techniques as well as artificial neural network approaches, with the long-term goal of understanding the behavioural, cognitive and neural substrates underlying songbird vocal production and perception, auditory perception and cognition.

Sturdy was co-editor of Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews for 6 years. CCBR is published by the Comparative Cognition Society and is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal that publishes reviews and critiques in the area of animal cognition spanning all aspects of research on cognition, perception, learning, memory, and behavior in animals.


Research

Research in the Songbird Neuroethology Laboratory

Research in the SNL seeks to develop as comprehensive understanding of songbird communication by studying behaviour and the neural systems controlling behaviour. Songbirds, along with humans, are one of only six animal groups (including bats, parrots, hummingbirds, and cetaceous whales and dolphins) that are known to exhibit vocal learning. Furthermore, songbirds possess a highly-evolved network of interconnected brain regions controlling vocal learning, vocal perception and vocal production. As such, songbirds allow researchers a unique opportunity to directly study vocal communication at the interface between brain and behaviour. The SNL studies the cognitive, neurobiological and behavioural substrates underlying songbirds' highly evolved and specialized suite of communication behaviours. Current research focuses on vocal communication in one particular group of songbirds, the chickadees (e.g., Black-capped, Boreal, Carolina, Chestnut-backed, and Mountain chickadees).

Research in the SNL is currently aimed at understanding the cognitive, perceptual, evolutionary, developmental, and neural bases underlying chickadees’ perception of the acoustic (vocal) categories (i.e., note-types, call types) contained in their calls and songs, as a first step towards a comprehensive understanding songbird acoustic communication. The perception of categories is a powerful phenomenon that has been demonstrated in many animal species, including humans and songbirds. By sorting large numbers of environmental stimuli, such as songbird vocalizations, into categories rather than memorizing each new instance, animals can adapt quickly to newly encountered stimuli. For example, black-capped chickadee flocks rapidly increase their vigilance behaviours after hearing another flock’s communication call (the ‘chick-a-dee’ call for which chickadees are named), without having to learn about the particular novel call or the individual that emitted it. Rather, chickadees rapidly sort the call into a category representing “foreign flock” and modify their ongoing behaviour accordingly. In order to begin to understand vocal category perception in chickadees, researchers in the SNL use a variety of experimental techniques including bioacoustic analyses and operant conditioning experiments and anatomy to determine how several species of chickadees perceive the categories in their vocalizations.


Teaching

Current Courses

PSYCO 299: Research Opportunity Program

PSYCO 396/398 496/498 (SCIENCE / ARTS): Individual Studies

Honours Thesis Research (2 year program)


Past Courses

PSYCO 381: Principles of Learning (Fall 2014)

PSYCO 403: Ancestral Health

PSYCO 403/505: Animal Communication

PSYCO 502: Professional and Ethical Issues (Fall 2014, 2015)