London Zoo: Animals learn from neighbors near and far | Local

London Zoo: Animals learn from neighbors near and far |  Local

Songbirds benefit if they receive information from their close neighbors about food scarcity before they experience low food availability themselves. They fare better than birds who receive this news from neighbors at the same time their own food shortage begins. Being forewarned by the birds next door allows them to change their physiology and behavior in anticipation of a decrease in the food supply.

A study of Red Crossbills explores the changes that birds make when they are alerted to a possible shortage in food supplies. Members of this species are well-suited for this type of research because (1) they are nomadic, moving to new areas in response to the level of available food and, (2) they incorporate the behavior of other birds into their decisions about relocating to potentially greener pastures. Red Crossbills eat conifer seeds—the crossed bills noted in their name are an adaption for extracting seeds from pinecones. This food resource is variable and unpredictable in both space and time.

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In a lab experiment, some birds continued receiving abundant food supplies for three days after their neighbors were severely food restricted. Other birds were shifted to food restrictions at the same time as their neighbors, so the three days of social information about low food supplies were concurrent with their own food deprivation. The birds who were given predictive information about a low food supply increased the amount of food they ate, added to the size of their gut, and maintained the size of their flight muscles. This approach to an impending food shortage proactively allowed them to maintain more body mass than the birds who had no advance notice about the impending poor food conditions.

Sources of new knowledge are not restricted to those animals who live nearby. Humpback whales in the south Pacific learn new songs when faraway populations come into contact with one another. That may occur either on migration routes around New Zealand or at their shared feeding grounds in the waters around Antarctica.

Whale songs experience “revolutions” in which the sole song performed by all members of a population is replaced by an entirely new song introduced from another population. Such revolutions are so common that documented researchers new songs within populations every year in a study from 2009 to 2015. Singing different songs each year suggests humpback whales can quickly learn new ones even if they are long and complicated.

The cultural transmission of songs is consistently one-way — from west to east. Whales on the east coast of Australia performed songs that researchers recorded a year later in whales from New Caledonia more than 3,000 kilometers away. The songs continued their transmission eastward roughly 2,000 kilometers to Tonga, then around 1,600 kilometers to the Cook Islands and an additional 2,000 kilometers to French Polynesia. Remarkably, the complexity of songs is preserved when one population picks up songs from another population.

There are lessons to be learned from others, whether it’s your next-door-neighbor or someone from far away whose path you cross while traveling.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, and an author of six books on canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.

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