Social learning in non-human animals

Social learning in non-human animals

Social learning occurs when other individuals have a direct influence on the acquisition of a new skill. Therefore, this does not include contagion but can occur by imitation, tutoring, mimicry and stimulus enhancement.

Contagion involves an animal copying what another animal is doing, using an already known behaviour. This is not imitation because no new behaviour is learned - the animal is simply using a response from its range of behaviours. An example of this is yawning in humans - very contagious!

Imitation involves the appropriate behaviour being demonstrated to a conspecific (member of the same species) and that conspecific replicating the behaviour at a later stage.

Evidence comes from the fact that a cat will escape more quickly from a puzzle box if it has observed another cat learning to escape beforehand (Herbert & Harsh, 1944). This type of social learning is passive, based on observation alone.

Tutoring is an active process in which one animal invests time and energy teaching a conspecific an appropriate behaviour.

Boesch (1991) observed tutoring of nut cracking in chimpanzees, which included such things as mothers' correctly positioning hammers and intact nuts and a mother slowing down and modifying her nut cracking for the benefit of her offspring.

Mimicry is similar to imitation, although there is no obvious reward following the behaviour.

These examples of facilitation help conspecifics to adopt the appropriate behaviour without the need for the tedious trial-and-error associated with conditioning. Through imitation there is no need to re-invent the wheel!

Social learning in non-human animals

Animals may get an idea of the behaviours to be imitated from stimulus enhancement. That is, the animal is attracted to things that are attractive to conspecifics. So it may be that the behaviour itself is not imitated but animals are just plain nosey!

Evidence for stimulus enhancement comes from McQuoid & Galef (1992), who studied jungle fowl. These birds have a curiosity for feeding bowls visited by conspecifics.

Not all animals are prone to stimulus enhancement, it seems that observation of a conspecific finding food actually impairs a pigeons performance (Burt & Guilford, 1999)!

It is difficult to tell what type of social learning is going on. A foraging study using ravens showed inexperienced birds did copy trained birds to open boxes to get food (Fritz & Kotrschal, 1999). But this could be explained by both imitation and stimulus enhancement.

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The classic example of social learning in foraging comes from the potato washing of a group of Japanese macaques (Kawamura, 1959, Kawai, 1965). A young female of this species started to wash human-provisioned potatoes that had become sandy, and this behaviour spread to other group members, possibly as they imitated one another's behaviour.

Social learning in non-human animals

However, evidence suggests that this may not be an example of behaviour transmitted by imitation.

As it took a long time for the behaviour to spread through the group, Galef (1992) suggested that individual Japanese macaques most likely learned to wash potatoes on their own (as had the original inventor), not by imitation.

He also noted that the young, following their mothers into the water, were finding potatoes there, thus providing an opportunity for individual learning. Furthermore, Visalberghi and Fragaszy (1990) found that other macaques could learn this behaviour on their own fairly quickly if given sandy fruits and bowls of water.

Another behaviour thought to be transmitted by social learning is milk bottle raiding by blue tits Fisher & Hinde (1949). The birds peck open the foil lid to get to the cream underneath. This behaviour was first observed in southern England in 1921 and spread very rapidly.

Social learning in non-human animals

It has been shown that this may, in part, be an imitated behaviour but independent learning and birds having encountered an opened bottle before are also significant factors (Sherry & Galef, 1984). Furthermore, social facilitation may also encourage birds to peck at bottle tops (Sherry & Galef, 1990).

Social learning is important for predators. The ability to teach young to hunt provides a selective advantage over competitors learning through trial-and-error. Lions learn from play and observing the behaviour of other members of the pride (Schaller, 1972). Cheetahs provide their young with injured prey and actively tutor them in the skills of hunting (Eaton, 1970).

Social learning in non-human animals