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Spatial learning in captive and wild-born lizards: heritability and environmental effects

Abstract

Animals raised in captivity go through drastically different life experiences compared with those raised in the wild. The captive environment is usually characterised by highly stable conditions and limited social interactions. Such early developmental environment, alone and interacting with genes, can have long-lasting effects on cognitive performance. By testing pairs of mothers and offspring delicate skinks, Lampropholis delicata, we investigated how being raised in a captive environment shapes spatial learning. Additionally, with this design, we were able to evaluate the additive genetic component and strength of genetic effects in this lizard species. Using a Y-maze task, we compared the spatial learning abilities of wild-caught adult female (mothers) delicate skinks, to their captive-born and raised sexually mature offspring. We found that more mothers completed the task and showed shorter latencies compared with offspring who took longer to complete the maze. The offspring performance did not appear to correlate with their mothers’ performance, indicating little narrow-sense heritability. Furthermore, offspring performance was neither affected nor predicted by their mothers’ performance, indicating a limited overall genetic effect. Our results suggest that early life experiences in a captive environment may have a hindering effect on cognitive performance.

Significance statement

How important are environmental effects compared with genetics on the development of learning abilities in non-human animals? Studying mother-offspring skink pairs, we show that wild-born mothers outperformed their captive-born offspring in a spatial learning task. We further show that offspring performance in the task was neither explained nor predicted by their mothers’ performance. We suggest that conditions during early-life stages shape spatial learning more than genetics, and stable captive conditions may have a negative effect on the development of spatial learning.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Felix Zajitschek for help in the field. We would like to thank Alison L. Greggor for insightful comments on the manuscript and Uri Roll for fruitful discussion and assistance in the analysis. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers whose comments greatly improved the manuscript.

Funding

This work was supported by a Ben-Gurion University-Monash University seed grant. This is publication number 1057 of the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology.

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Correspondence to Reut Vardi.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All animal care and experimental procedures were approved by the Monash University Animal Ethics Committee (BSCI/2016/17, BSCI/2017/33). All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the use of animals were followed.

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Vardi, R., Goulet, C.T., Matthews, G. et al. Spatial learning in captive and wild-born lizards: heritability and environmental effects. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 74, 23 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-020-2805-6

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Keywords

  • Cognition
  • Delicate skink
  • Genetic effects
  • Nature-nurture
  • Rearing environment
  • Y-maze