, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 265-283

Experimental identification of social learning in wild animals


Field experiments can provide compelling demonstrations of social learning in wild populations. Social learning has been experimentally demonstrated in at least 23 field experiments, in 20 species, covering a range of contexts, such as foraging preferences and techniques, habitat choice, and predator avoidance. We review experimental approaches taken in the field and with wild animals brought into captivity and note how these approaches can be extended. Relocating individuals, introducing trained individual demonstrators or novel behaviors into a population, or providing demonstrator-manipulated artifacts can establish whether and how a particular act can be socially transmitted in the wild and can help elucidate the benefits of social learning. The type, strength, and consistency of presented social information can be varied, and the provision of conditions favoring the performance of an act can both establish individual discovery rates and help determine whether social information is needed for acquisition. By blocking particular avenues of social transmission or removing key individuals, routes of transmission in wild populations can be investigated. Manipulation of conditions proposed to favor social learning can test mathematical models of the evolution of social learning. We illustrate how field experiments are a viable, vital, and informative approach to the study of social learning.

We thank L. Lefebvre, B. G. Galef, S. E. Hewlett, and O. Todorov for helpful comments, and T. A. Langen and E. van de Waal for additional information on published studies. S.M.R. is partially funded by a Utrecht University High Potentials grant and thanks the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Evolution and Behaviour Programme for additional funding, and McGill University for hospitality during a sabbatical visit. D.B. was supported by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and by Somerville College, Oxford.