Observational Learning

Observational learning is when one animal can watch the actions of another and learn from those actions. This may be as simple as learning the location of a food source or as complicated as learning a sequence of actions that needs to be taken to earn a reward. Many animals can do this; good experimental evidence is available for the common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, quail, rats, and a variety of primates.

The most famous putative example of observational learning was the spread of the ability to open milk bottles, among blue tits, Parus caeruleus, and European robins, Erithacus rubeculain, in Great Britain. These birds learned to rob cream from the top of milk bottles during the early part of the 20th century, and the blue tits later adapted to the use of aluminum foil seals on the bottles, learning to tear them to access the cream. There are actually two hypotheses which could explain the increase in these behaviors: First, birds might observe other birds feeding in this manner and adopt the behavior. Second, each bird might, independently, discover this feeding option. This second possibility is particularly likely if a bottle opened by one bird serves as a clue to other birds that the bottles are food resources. Sherry and Galef (1984) argued for just this interpretation of this classic example. Although their reinterpretation is controversial, this illustrates the need for carefully controlled experiments and an open mind to considering alternative explanations.

Observational learning can play a role in exploiting other species' food caches, as well.

Altshuler DL, Nunn AM 2001 Observational learning in hummingbirds AUK 118 (3): 795-799
Bugnyar T, Kotrschal K 2002 Observational learning and the raiding of food caches in ravens, Corvus corax: is it 'tactical' deception? ANIM BEHAV 64: 185-195
Fiorito G, Scotto P 1992. Observational learning in Octopus vulgaris SCIENCE 256 (5056): 545-547
Koksal F, Domjan M 1998 Observational conditioning of sexual behavior in the domesticated quail ANIM LEARN BEHAV 26 (4): 427-432
Lindberg AC, Kelland A, Nicol CJ 1999 Effects of observational learning on acquisition of an operant response in horses APPLIED ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR SCIENCE 61 (3): 187-199 (negative result)
Ottoni EB, Mannu M 2001 Semifree-ranging tufted capuchins (Cebus apella) spontaneously use tools to crack open nuts INT J PRIMATOL 22 (3): 347-358
Sasvari L, Hegyi Z 1998 How mixed-species foraging flocks develop in response to benefits from observational learning. ANIM BEHAV 55: 1461-1469
Sherry D F, Galef B G 1984 Cultural transmission without imitation - milk bottle opening by birds ANIM BEHAV 32: 937-938
van Schaik CP, Deaner RO, Merrill MY1999 The conditions for tool use in primates: implications for the evolution of material culture. J HUM EVOL 36 (6): 719-741
White DJ, Galef BG 1998 Social influence on avoidance of dangerous stimuli by rats ANIM LEARN BEHAV 26 (4): 433-438

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copyright ©2001 Michael D. Breed, all rights reserved