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Group size and associative learning in the Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen dorsalis)

Abstract

Group living can present unique challenges that may require individuals to possess cognitive skills, such as the ability to recognise group members and maintain relationships with specific individuals. These skills may be particularly important for animals that live in large groups, because the intricacies of social life may become more complex when more individuals are involved. Previous research has found that species with regular social interactions tend to show elevated cognitive performance relative to those that rarely interact, yet intraspecific variation in performance among individuals in social groups of varying size is rarely explored. We investigated the relationship between the ability to solve an associative learning task and group size among individuals of a free-living, social bird, the Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen dorsalis). Individuals varied in their likelihood of interacting with and solving the task. Individuals from larger groups were more likely to approach the associative learning task, suggesting that group size influences individual propensity to attempt a novel task. However, group size did not influence the likelihood that individuals solved the task. Rather, age had an important effect; adults were more likely to solve the association task than juveniles. Our finding that free-living individuals occurring in large social groups were more likely to interact with a novel task suggests that group size may affect differences in performance at a cognitive task within a species.

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Acknowledgments

First and foremost, we would like to thank Dr. Eleanor Rowley for not only establishing the magpie population involved in this research, but also sharing her 15 years of knowledge on the magpies to allow research to continue. We would like to thank Alex Thornton, Cyril Grueter and our manuscript reviewers for providing valuable input into the development of the manuscript. Additionally, we would like to thank Ben Ashton and Emily Edwards for their assistance in the field. This research was funded by the School of Animal Biology, University of Western Australia.

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Correspondence to Melanie O. Mirville.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All observations performed on free-living magpies in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Animal Ethics Committee, University of Western Australia (Approval number RA/100/1272).

Additional information

Communicated by N. Clayton

Significance statement

Research suggests that there is considerable variation in cognitive ability among species from different social settings, yet variation among individuals that differ in sociality is yet to be sufficiently explored. We investigated variation in associative learning among individuals in social groups of varying size in a wild population of magpies, a cooperative bird species. Presenting a colour association foraging task to individuals revealed that individuals from larger groups were more likely to attempt to solve the task. Additionally, older individuals were more successful at solving the task, suggesting that both social and individual differences contribute to associative learning ability. These findings present a significant contribution to understanding cognitive variation among individuals, because social differences, in particular group size, may determine the opportunity that an individual has to acquire the skills and behaviours necessary for overcoming social and ecological challenges.

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Mirville, M.O., Kelley, J.L. & Ridley, A.R. Group size and associative learning in the Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen dorsalis). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70, 417–427 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2062-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2062-x

Keywords

  • Cognition
  • Sociality
  • Associative learning
  • Group size
  • Australian magpie
  • Cracticus tibicen dorsalis