Learning ability is unaffected by isolation rearing in a family-living lizard


The social environment during development can affect learning; for example, raising an obligate social mammal in isolation can hinder their learning ability. However, we know little about how the social environment impacts learning in less-studied, facultatively social taxa, like family-living lizards. We reared tree skinks (Egernia striolata) in two treatments, either with a conspecific or in isolation. We used three tasks to quantify skink learning ability (motor, discrimination, and reversal). Skinks performed these tasks under two learning treatments: either after demonstration (social learning) or without social information (individual learning). We did not find any evidence that tree skinks used social information. The majority of skinks learnt our motor (91%) and discrimination tasks (100%), and a third learnt our reversal task (34%). Contrary to our predictions, and the majority of previous literature, we detected no negative effect of rearing treatment on learning in any task. Our surprising findings are likely due to this skink’s variable social system, and we suggest that birds and mammals with facultative sociality may not be affected by isolation rearing in the same way as taxa with obligate sociality.

Significance statement

Survival can be impacted by an animal’s ability to learn, but many factors can influence this ability (i.e., age, sex, stress, and developmental environment). In this study, we examined how social environment across ontogeny impacts the learning ability of a facultatively family-living animal, the tree skink. Traditionally, the relationship between social environment and learning has been examined in obligate social species. But, examining this relationship in species across all social systems aids in our understanding of the evolution of sociality, and the consequences and limitations of each social system. We found the social environment tree skinks were raised in did not affect their social or individual learning abilities across three foraging tasks. Our findings provide an initial examination of how social environment impacts learning in a facultatively social species.

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We thank Bram Smagala, Côme Guidou, and Sheila Attersley for field assistance, James Baxter-Gilbert for his assistance with laboratory assays, as well as all the Lizard Lab students that took care of skinks during their development and helped with this research. We also thank two anonymous referees for their helpful comments.

Funding information

Financial support for this research was provided by the Australian Research Council (ARC DP130102998 grant to MJW and RWB), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (scholarship to JLR), the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behavior, the Australian Museum, and Macquarie University (scholarship to JLR). DWAN was supported by an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award (DE150101774), and a University of New South Wales Vice Chancellors Fellowship.

Author information

Correspondence to Julia L. Riley.

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Ethical approval

Experimental protocols were approved by the Macquarie University Animal Ethics Committee (ARA no. 2013/039). Our research was approved by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, Office of Environment and Heritage (License no. SL101264).

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by S. J. Downes

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Riley, J.L., Küchler, A., Damasio, T. et al. Learning ability is unaffected by isolation rearing in a family-living lizard. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72, 20 (2018).

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  • Aggregation
  • Cognition
  • Facultative sociality
  • Individual learning
  • Reptile
  • Social learning