Opportunities and constraints when studying social learning: Developmental approaches and social factors
Identifying social learning in wild populations is complicated by the relative lack of ability to conduct controlled experiments in natural habitats. Even in more controlled captive settings, tracking the innovation and spread of behavior among known individuals can be challenging, and these studies often suffer from a lack of ecological validity. In recent years, a host of new approaches have been undertaken to attempt to provide more quantitative control and empirical demonstration of social learning, both in the wild and in captive settings that more closely mimic natural contexts. Developmental approaches are being undertaken more regularly that allow us to study the ontogenetic trajectory of complex skills in a variety of taxa. Likewise, a spirited focus on the social context of social learning has emerged, and researchers have begun to meticulously analyze the influences of social systems and the characteristics of demonstrators and observers. Here, we provide a review of these studies and summarize the opportunities and constraints that exist when one attempts to study learning in social species. We suggest that although the study of social learning in nonhuman animals is becoming much more complex, addressing this complexity provides a fruitful model for understanding the evolution of human cultural behavior.