Great Tits Unaffected by Tough Environments in Social Learning

Jim Crocker
12th March, 2024

Great Tits Unaffected by Tough Environments in Social Learning

Key Findings

  • University of Ottawa researchers studied great tits' use of social learning across different environments
  • Great tits use social learning to find food, but harshness of environment didn't affect this ability
  • The study suggests generalist species like great tits may not rely more on social learning in harsh conditions
In the quest to understand how animals adapt to their environments, scientists have been intrigued by the role of learning—both individual and social—in helping species survive and thrive. One theory, known as the harsh environment hypothesis, suggests that in tough conditions, animals would evolve to be more adept at learning to overcome challenges. While studies have supported this idea in species with specialized behaviors, such as food-hoarding birds, the question remained: does this hypothesis hold true for generalist foragers—animals that eat a wide variety of foods and use diverse strategies to find their meals? Researchers from the University of Ottawa set out to answer this question by focusing on the great tit, Parus major, a generalist foraging bird[1]. They conducted experiments with great tits from different elevations, which provided a natural gradient of environmental harshness. The assumption was that birds from higher, harsher elevations might rely more on social learning—observing and imitating others—to find food, compared to their counterparts in milder, lower elevations. The study involved two social learning tasks. In the first, birds had to associate a color with a food reward. In the second, the task was spatial, requiring the birds to remember the locations where food was available. The researchers were interested in whether the birds used information they learned by watching others and if there was a difference in how quickly they incorporated this information based on their elevation. The findings were somewhat unexpected. While the great tits did use social learning in both tasks, there was no significant difference between birds from high and low elevations in their use or speed of implementing socially learned information. These results suggest that, unlike specialist species, generalist foragers like the great tit may not have evolved stronger social learning abilities in harsher environments. Instead, they may have a more flexible approach, using social learning when it's beneficial but not relying on it more in tougher conditions. Previous studies have shown that foraging strategies can be influenced by individual traits, such as cognition. For instance, in wild mixed-species flocks of great tits and blue tits, it was discovered that cognitive traits could influence foraging tactics, with some birds showing a preference for scrounging—taking food found by others—over producing—finding food themselves[2]. This highlights the complexity of foraging behaviors and the potential for individual variation within a species. Moreover, the ability to learn from others is not limited to foraging. Predators, like blue tits and great tits, have been observed to avoid aposematic, or warningly colored, prey after watching a conspecific or heterospecific have a negative experience with one[3]. This shows that social learning can extend across species and influence predator-prey interactions. Individual differences in social learning have also been observed in other species, such as chimpanzees, with some individuals more likely to use social information than others[4]. These differences were not strongly heritable, suggesting that other factors, like experience or personality, might play a more significant role. The University of Ottawa study adds to this body of knowledge by suggesting that generalist species like the great tit may have a more nuanced relationship with their environment than previously thought. They don't necessarily rely more on social learning in harsh conditions, but rather, they may assess the costs and benefits of different strategies and choose accordingly. This research indicates that the harsh environment hypothesis might apply more to specialists than generalists, and it underscores the importance of considering a species' entire foraging strategy, including social learning, when studying adaptation to the environment. It also suggests that individual variation within a species can be significant and that cognitive traits can influence how animals interact with their ecosystem. The study by the University of Ottawa researchers challenges us to rethink how we understand the evolution of learning in response to environmental challenges and opens the door for further investigation into the adaptive nature of social learning across different species and ecological contexts.

WildlifeEcologyAnimal Science


Main Study

1) Environmental harshness does not affect the propensity for social learning in great tits, Parus major.

Published 12th March, 2024

Journal: Animal cognition

Issue: Vol 27, Issue 1, Mar 2024

Related Studies

2) Cognition and covariance in the producer-scrounger game.

3) Social learning within and across predator species reduces attacks on novel aposematic prey.

4) Chimpanzees demonstrate individual differences in social information use.

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