Social Learning

in tropical fish

Domestic guppies
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What is social learning?

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...

Fishy investigationsTwo guppies pondering their options

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, why are they followed?

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 below.


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). 

Of course, 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".

Selfish Leaders?

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 individual because she is, well, the lead individual (we only used female guppies, in case you were wondering).  

To boldly go...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 Eleanor Paish.

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 "private" information 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"

Prize-winning Student ResearchZoology undergraduate Vix Franks conducting research in our aquarium

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 here.

And in 2012 her research was published in the journal Animal Behaviour.  You can read the news story relating to its publication here as well as the journal article itself.

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 Zoology and Animal Behaviour by clicking the links. Or order our brochure.


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