Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) show a feature-negative effect specific to social learning
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Previous laboratory studies on social learning suggest that some animals can learn more readily if they first observe a conspecific demonstrator perform the task unsuccessfully and so fail to obtain a food reward than if they observe a successful demonstrator that obtains the food. This effect may indicate a difference in how easily animals are able to associate different outcomes with the conspecific or could simply be the result of having food present in only some of the demonstrations. To investigate we tested a scatter-hoarding mammal, the eastern grey squirrel, on its ability to learn to choose between two pots of food after watching a conspecific remove a nut from one of them on every trial. Squirrels that were rewarded for choosing the opposite pot to the conspecific chose correctly more frequently than squirrels rewarded for choosing the same pot (a feature-negative effect). Another group of squirrels was tested on their ability to choose between the two pots when the rewarded option was indicated by a piece of card. This time, squirrels showed no significant difference in their ability to learn to choose the same or the opposite pot. The results add to anecdotal reports that grey squirrels can learn by observing a conspecific and suggest that even when all subjects are provided with demonstrations with the same content, not all learning occurs equally. Prior experience or expectations of the association between a cue (a conspecific) and food influences what can be learned through observation whilst previously unfamiliar cues (the card) can be associated more readily with any outcome.
KeywordsFeature-negative effect Grey squirrels Social learning Caching
The research was carried out as part of LJH’s Ph.D. studies, funded by the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter. LAL, AJW and SEGL were supported by European Commission Framework 6 (NEST) Project 516542, ‘From Associations to Rules’. We thank C. Ryan, K. Jule and L. Millar for assistance in care of the squirrels. Squirrels were treated in accordance with Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour guidelines on animal welfare and UK law. Trapping was carried out with permission of Natural England.
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