Animal Cognition

, Volume 20, Issue 5, pp 855–866 | Cite as

The effect of social learning on avoidance of aposematic prey in juvenile great tits (Parus major)

  • Eva Landová
  • Kateřina Hotová Svádová
  • Roman Fuchs
  • Pavel Štys
  • Alice ExnerováEmail author
Original Paper


Social learning plays an important role in acquiring new foraging skills and food preferences in many bird species but its potential role in learning to avoid aposematic prey has never been studied. We tested the effect of social learning on the acquisition of avoidance of aposematic insect prey (firebug Pyrrhocoris apterus; Heteroptera) in juvenile, hand-reared great tits (Parus major). Behaviour towards aposematic prey was compared between two groups of birds: (1) the observers that were, prior to encounter with firebugs, allowed to watch the experienced conspecific demonstrator repeatedly refuse to attack the prey, and (2) the control birds that lacked this opportunity. Observing an experienced demonstrator was not sufficient for learning complete avoidance, because birds from both groups attacked at least the first firebug they had encountered in avoidance training. However, the opportunity to observe the avoidance behaviour of another bird significantly increased the rate of subsequent individual learning of observers in comparison with control birds. Social learning also decreased mortality of firebugs killed by the birds during the avoidance learning. Socially enhanced learning to avoid aposematic prey might be a mechanism important especially for naive juvenile birds learning from their parents, but it could also enhance learning in adults from their more experienced flock mates. Because social learning of avoidance may also lead to decreased mortality of aposematic prey, its effect should be taken into account in scenarios considering evolution and maintenance of prey warning signals.


Parus major Pyrrhocoris apterus Social learning Avoidance learning Aposematic prey Naive predators Warning signalling 



We thank Silvie Rádlová for help with preparation of the figures, Olga Kukal for linguistic advice and corrections, and Daniel Frynta for advice on Bayesian statistics. We are grateful to Ken Cheng, Anders Brodin and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments and suggestions.


The study was financially supported by Czech Science Foundation (Project P505/11/1459).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of Charles University. We have obtained permission for hand-rearing great tit nestlings (No. 109218/2004/ŽP3/Voj issued by Municipality of Hradec Králové) and for laboratory experiments (Nos. 18847/2003-1020 and 17537/2003-30/300 issued by the Czech Animal Welfare Commission) which cover all methodological details.


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Zoology, Faculty of ScienceCharles UniversityPrague 2Czech Republic

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