Learned Behavior in Animals

Many behaviors seem so intrinsic to certain organisms that they appear as though they must be present at birth. Behaviors such as a lion's knowledge and ability to hunt down and prey upon antelope and wildebeest, to our ability to stand upright and walk. However, most of these behaviors are learned rather than ingrained in us at birth. Humans and non-human animals learn many of these behaviors very early on in their lifespan; thus, it may appear as though they were present from birth.

Learned Behavior in Animals Learned Behavior in Animals

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    In the following article, we will discuss learned behaviors in animals, including their definition, different types, and examples.

    Definition of learned behavior in animals

    The definition in both human and non-human animals of learned behaviors are behaviors acquired through experiences in life and are not genetically inherited. These behaviors are often learned through a process of trial and error and by observing other individuals engaged in the behavior. These behaviors are then saved as memories and can be repeated in the future. Since learned behaviors are only acquired through life experiences, they are considered to be extrinsic, since individuals in isolation from other individuals and life experiences would not develop these learned behaviors.

    Extrinsic – dependent on factors outside of the individual.

    Types of learned behavior in animals

    Types of learning include habituation, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, imprinting, and insight learning. One of the simplest ways that animals learn is through habituation, where animals decrease the frequency of a behavior in response to a repeated stimulus.

    Let's talk about each of them in more detail.

    Classical conditioning

    Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, involves a learned behavior being the same as different unrelated stimuli due to conditioning.

    By this, we mean that a reactionary behavior is the same to at least two different stimuli.

    Perhaps the most well-known example of classical conditioning is the experiments conducted on dogs by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. During Pavlov’s experiments, he conditioned dogs to salivate to the sound of a ringing bell through a conditioned association with the smell of food.

    Classical conditioning involves unconditioned and conditioned stimuli and their responses. In Pavlov’s experiment, the unconditioned stimulus and response were the smell of food and salivation, while the conditioned stimulus and response were the ringing bell and salivation.

    Unconditioned stimulus: The original stimulus that provoked the original, unconditioned response.

    Conditioned stimulus: The new stimulus that provokes the same response, which is now referred to as the conditioned response.

    Habituation

    When an organism experiences repeated exposure to the same stimuli, it may become habituated to it and ceases responding in the same way it had responded previously. This is known as habituation.

    One of the most apparent examples of habituation in non-human animals would be the habituation of the presence of humans.

    Most wild animals are naturally wary and fearsome of humans. Still, they may lose this fear and become habituated through any number of mechanisms, one of the most frequent and destructive being the direct feeding of wild animals by humans.

    The habituation of wild animals to humans is a significant problem in many parts of the world, often resulting in increased human-wildlife conflict and the deaths of both humans and the animal species involved. This is particularly severe when large predators are involved, most frequently bears and crocodilians.

    For example, on the island of Ambergris Caye in Belize, the feeding of large American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) has become very problematic over the past two decades. The frequent feeding has resulted in crocodiles seeking out humans and spending more time in human habitats. This has resulted in human injuries and the retaliatory killings of crocodiles. The habituated crocodiles became so bold that one large individual started rushing out of the water and attacking passing golf carts near a lagoon on the island before being captured and placed into captivity.

    This habituation also often negatively affects the health of the wildlife involved, as these crocodiles were often fed chicken and fish with plastic bags still attached, which were then consumed.

    Learned behavior in animals An American crocodile being fed Study SmarterFigure 1: An American crocodile being fed in Ambergris Caye, Belize. Source: Brandon Sideleau, own work

    Imprinting

    Imprinting is a learned behavior that occurs at specific points in an organism’s lifespan, most frequently at birth. There are generally three types of imprinting: filial, sexual, and limbic.

    Filial imprinting

    Filial imprinting occurs at birth between a newborn and its mother, father, and/or siblings. This type of imprinting behavior is vital to an infant organism’s chances of survival and allows them to recognize members of their own species.

    Sexual imprinting

    Sexual imprinting allows human and non-human animals to develop sexual attractions to specific mates, depending on which behavioral and physical traits it finds desirable. These preferences develop early in an organism’s lifespan, while still young.

    In humans, reverse sexual imprinting has been described, where individuals are NOT attracted to individuals that have similar characteristics to those they had close and frequent contact with as children before the age of six (such as siblings). This is known as the Westermarck effect.

    Limbic imprinting

    Limbic imprinting involves experiences during the pre-, peri- and post-natal periods having a permanent impact on the limbic systems (also known as the paleomammalian cortex of the brain). Behaviors, emotions, and memories are highly dependent on the limbic system, so imprints here would greatly impact an organism. Despite occurring very early in life, limbic imprinting may greatly impact the individual for the rest of his or her life.

    One example of limbic imprinting involves traumatic experiences. Trauma can be experienced both in utero and after birth and can greatly impact the development of the child, including delays in development and mental disorders.

    Insight

    Insight is a very complex form of learned behavior in animals. It is believed to be restricted to animals with higher cognitive abilities, such as humans, non-human Great Apes, cetaceans, and elephants. Insight requires problem-solving skills and the comprehension of cause and effect.

    Operant conditioning

    Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, involves punishments and rewards for specific actions, resulting in a specific, conditioned response. This is often accomplished through positive and negative reinforcement, as well as positive and negative punishment.

    • Positive reinforcement and punishment involve additions, such as food or shocks,

    • while negative reinforcement and punishment involve removal, such as stopping shocks or removing food.

    One of the pioneering scientists in operant conditioning was American psychologist B. F. Skinner, who used his “Skinner box” to demonstrate that rats would change their behavior (a conditioned response) due to positive reinforcement and punishment (e.g., food and electric shocks).

    List of learned behaviors in animals

    The following is a list of common learned behaviors in animals:

    • Communication

    • Danger identification and avoidance (e.g., predators or poisonous/venomous organisms)

    • Prey identification

    • Sexual selection

    • Species identification

    • Tool use

    • Environmental manipulation

    • And many more!

    Learned Behavior Examples in Animals

    Observing other animals and living experiences lead to learned behavior. A common example of a learned behavior in animals are ducklings watching their mothers to figure out how to avoid danger and what is safe to eat. Below are other two examples of learned behavior in animals, one involving crows and the other regarding tool use in gorillas.

    Planning in crows

    The New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) is a species of crow endemic to the islands of Grande Terre and Mare in New Caledonia. These crows have learned how to use complex tools in many ways, including the ability to anticipate cause and effect, thus suggesting insight learning.

    One such learned behavior observed was the ability to displace water to obtain food. They accomplished this by dropping stones into water containers with food on the surface, thus causing the water level to rise and rendering the food attainable. Multiple other experiments were conducted and repeated, some using barriers and new circumstances, yet the crows almost always seemed to adapt and change their behavior in response. This suggests that these crows have high cognitive abilities, including the ability to plan ahead, previously believed to be restricted to only a small number of mammalian species.

    Tool use in gorillas

    Western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) have been observed in the Republic of Congo’s Nouabale-Ndoki National Park using tree trunks as poles to determine water depth and aid in movement/structural support while wading through swamps and other waterways. These gorillas used the trunks in ways that were virtually identical to the way humans use poles while navigating waterways on foot. Western gorillas are one of multiple species of non-human primate that have been observed using tools of varying complexity, giving researchers insight into what the behavior of early humans may have been like.

    Let’s compare innate behaviors to learned behaviors in animals

    Observation, or watching other animals, is one of the most common ways animals learn. It is possible to learn by observation without any external reinforcement (through observing and mimicking). There are two types of animal behavior recognized: innate and learned.

    In addition to learned behaviors, there are innate behaviors. Unlike learned behaviors, innate behaviors are inherited genetically from parent to offspring and are present in the organism from birth. Innate behaviors are automatic in response to specific stimuli, even if that stimulus had never been encountered previously.

    “Fight or flight” responses and “knee-jerk” reactions are classic examples of innate behaviors, and they are called “reflex actions”, since they are involuntary in nature.

    On the other hand, learned behaviors are not passed down genetically (though they may be passed down behaviorally after birth) and are not automatic. Learned behaviors often require trial and error and always require life experience. Hence, they are not present before or at birth.

    Learned Behavior in Animals - Key takeaways

    • There are two types of animal behavior recognized: learned and innate.
    • Learned behaviors are extrinsic behaviors acquired through experiences in life and are not genetically inherited, whereas innate behaviors are automatic and involuntary responses, present from birth.
    • Five different types of learned behavior are recognized: classical conditioning, habituation, imprinting, insight, and operant conditioning.
    • Some examples of learned behavior include tool use, communication, sexual selection, danger avoidance, prey identification, and species identification.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Learned Behavior in Animals

    What are examples of learned behaviors in animals?

    The following is a list of common learned behaviors in animals:

    • Communication

    • Danger identification and avoidance (e.g., predators or poisonous/venomous organisms)

    • Prey identification

    • Sexual selection

    • Species identification

    • Tool use

    • Environmental manipulation

    • And many more!

    What is learned behavior in animals?

    In both human and non-human animals learned behaviors are behaviors acquired through experiences in life and are not genetically inherited. These behaviors are often learned through a process of trial and error and by observing other individuals engaged in the behavior. 

    Why do animals learn behaviors?

    Since learned behaviors are only acquired through life experiences, they are considered to be extrinsic, since individuals in isolation from other individuals and life experiences would not develop these learned behaviors. 

    What are the types of learned behavior?

    In general, five different types of learned behavior are recognized: 

    • Classical conditioning

    • Habituation

    • Imprinting

    • Insight

    • Operant conditioning

    How has the study of animal behavior evolved?

    Studying animal behavior includes both human and non-human animals, and can be in laboratory or wild settings. Over time, the study of animal behavior has begun to examine the mechanisms of these learned behaviors, and exploration of complex systems, rather than strictly focusing on lay observation. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are the two types of animal behavior?

    Since learned behaviors are only acquired through life experiences, they are considered to be _________.

    In general, _____ different types of learned behavior are recognized.

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