Ruth Colwill

(401) 863-2547
Office Location: 
Metcalf 232
Research Focus: 
Animal learning, behavior and cognition

Ruth M. Colwill received her PhD from the University of Cambridge and her BA from the University of York. Her research interests include animal learning and behavior, early adverse experiences on cognitive development, canine communication systems and aggressive behavior, and environmental enrichment.

Research Interests:

My research uses primarily behavioral methods to examine how information is represented by the animal mind. Current areas of research are:

Instrumental learning. One of the most pervasive principles of modern experimental psychology is that behavior is governed by its consequences. One goal of my research has been to determine the extent of an organism's knowledge of the consequences of its acts and the circumstances giving rise to that knowledge. In previous work, I have documented that when multiple outcomes are uniquely correlated with different responses, rats learn which response produces which outcome. Current research is addressing the role of discriminative stimuli in determining instrumental performance.

Pavlovian conditioning. The ability to detect relations between events endows an organism with the knowledge to predict the occurrence of future events. Previous work with pigeons examined the effect of degrading the contingency between a signal and its outcome by additional presentations of either that same outcome or related outcomes during acquisition and extinction. Recent work with mice has focused on their ability to represent higher-order relational information where one event modulates the connection between two other events.

Effects of early experience on cognitive development. My lab in collaboration with the Creton & Kreiling labs is using zebrafish to examine the effects of embryonic exposure to PCBs on neurobehavioral development. My lab has also developed several procedures for studying the effects of in utero exposure to marijuana on executive functions in cognition in the C57BL/6J mouse.

Canid communication. Evidence suggests that animal vocalizations can be used to transmit information about the identity of the sender, information about the motivational or behavioral intent of the sender, and referential information. We have been studying the acoustic structure of canine vocalizations for evidence that pack members produce distinctive sounds that can be used for individual recognition. Other topics include using playback procedures to investigate individual recognition by conspecifics and the deployment of a dynamic intruder classification system. 

Dog bite prevention. Dog bites are a prevalent source of injury in the US population. It has been estimated that as many as 4.7 million individuals receive dog bites each year and that almost 800,000 of these individuals require medical attention for their bites Children under the age of 10 years are at greater risk for dog bite injuries compared to the adult population. Children are most likely to be bitten by a familiar dog that is their own dog, a dog owned by a relative, or a friend's family dog. In collaboration with the Injury Prevention Center at RI Hospital, we are testing the effectiveness of a dog bite prevention program (Dog Safety & Literacy Program) developed in my lab for children in grades 1 through 4. I have also developed dog bite prevention programs for adults including letter carriers, social workers, health care professionals, animal control officers and animal shelter volunteers. Information about these programs is available on request.

Environmental enrichment. Enrichment programs are essential for the physical and psychological well being of zoo animals. In collaboration with staff at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, we are developing new enrichment programs and implementing methods to assess the effectiveness of those programs.