Social learning occurs when one
animal alters its behaviour as a result of the experience of
another animal. A bird may chirp to inform others of the
location of food or the approach of a predator. The
receivers of the signal learn something about their environment
as a result of the experience of the signaller. Animals
live in constantly changing environments and need to keep up to
date with what's happening where. The video below is a
brief introduction to social learning, produced by one of my
project students, Eleanor Paish.
Many animals live in groups, so if one member of the
group knows where to find food, then it would seem logical for
others to follow it to the food. But how do they know who to
follow? And how do they know it knows more than they do?
We are investigating questions about
social foraging and social learning using domestic guppies:
small tropical fish, just like those you find in pet shops. And
although we are studying fish, there are parallels with other
animals - including humans...
By teaching a single fish the
location of food in an aquarium, we can test whether or not
shoals of na´ve fish follow the trained (knowledgeable) one.
But do knowledgeable fish lead? Are
leaders really knowledgeable? (Not quite the same question when
you think about it). Does knowledge "make" them act boldly? What
signals, if any, do they give to other fish in a shoal? Indeed,
So many questions. And now we are
finding some answers. As part of her undergraduate Honours
research project, Victoria Franks found that, generally
speaking, leaders are indeed knowledgeable: they tend to be
those that were trained to know the location of the food.
Ultimately, knowledgeable individuals left the holding area first and were
followed by the rest of the shoal - hence being labelled
"leaders". A video explaining the underlying
training methods has been made by Eleanor Paish and can be viewed
But why did the shoal follow that
particular individual? Well, simply because it was the first
fish to move - if the knowledgeable fish was a bit slow off the
marks, and a na´ve fish left first, the shoal would follow this
bold individual instead (although they didn't always find the
food as a result).
there are advantages to being in a shoal beyond just finding out
about a new environment, like safety in numbers. So the last
fish to follow the rest may be just "following the majority"
rather than "following a presumed knowledgeable individual".
How much information can be
transferred among social foragers? Do the leaders signal
the location of food? Or does the shoal just follow the lead
because she is, well, the lead individual (we only used female guppies, in case you
We trained a guppy in an
aquarium with 3 foraging patches (areas with lots of food,
a little food, or no food), then let them loose with na´ve
fish. Curiously, they seemed only to differentiate
between "food" and "no food" - not between different amounts of
food - even though there wasn't enough in the
"little food" area to feed their followers.
So it seems leaders don't consider
their followers when they go off to feed. Clearly the
followers still benefit from following an individual who knows where
at least some food is, rather than expending time and energy in
a fruitless search on their own.
All of this suggests that animals that learn by
copying are limited in the amount of information they can
gather. They find by following, not by interpreting complex
signals. Another student, Eleanor Paish has taken this further,
asking whether shoal members react to signals from the "leader"
or whether they just follow it.
To boldly go...
At the end of the day, it may come
down to inherent personality: each individual's behavioural
strategy - some are shy and some are bolder. A video describing how
we go about differentiating the two can be viewed
here, produced by
Of course, over time we would expect
followers to learn about their new environment themselves and
rely less on the leader. Furthermore, In a constantly
changing environment, the value of past information will
decline, just as one's own knowledge of an area will gradually
increase. Over time, an individual may place more reliance on their own
than on "public" information (that held by others).
It's rather like driving back to the
airport at the end of a holiday: "I' recognise this bit" you say, switching off the SatNav: "I know the way from here"
Victoria Franks, a zoology
undergraduate here at Aberystwyth, won the SET (Europe) Biology
Student of the Year
Award in 2011 for her Honours Project investigating social
learning in guppies - full story
And in 2012 her
research was published in the journal Animal Behaviour.
You can read the news story relating to its publication
well as the journal
Aberystwyth University is known for its
research-led teaching. What better way to demonstrate this than
having undergraduate research published in top peer-reviewed
journals! Read more about our degrees in
Animal Behaviour by clicking the links. Or order our