Learn for life from your parents: the fitness benefits of social learning

Michael Griesser

University of Zurich, Department of Anthropology, Switzerland

Date: Wednesday, 12.04.2017, 13:00, Cent Lecture Theatre 0142 (note the new location!!! How to get there: After entering CeNT, you will find  the lecture theatre 0142 ~15 meters to the right)

Social learning occurs in a range of species, allowing individuals to acquire skills from others. As a facilitator of the cultural transfer of knowledge between individuals, it is a critical component of human evolution. However, studies of social learning have assumed that is has long-term fitness consequences, but empirical evidence for this is lacking. In this talk, I demonstrate a fitness benefit of social learning for naive individuals in wild Siberian jays. This bird species lives in groups that can contain both related and unrelated juveniles. Exposing groups to perched predator models and a one-action foraging task showed that kinship influenced how juveniles acquire new skills. Upon exposure to predator models, related juveniles immediately paid attention to the behavior of adults and copied most of their behaviors. In contrast, unrelated juveniles copied the behavior of adults less frequently, but regularly foraged in the presence of a predator model. However, all juveniles had substantially higher first-winter survival after observing breeders mobbing a goshawk, the main predator, increasing their likelihood of acquiring a breeding position later in life. Similarly, kinship influenced the social learning opportunities when exposed to a foraging task. Related juveniles benefited from unconstrained access to the feeder while unrelated juveniles were regularly displaced from the feeder. However, socially dominant juveniles had independent of their kinship more learning opportunities and thus, solved the task faster. Consequently, social dominant juveniles that solved the task faster were more likely to become breeder.

These results show that both kinship and social dominance can influence how naive juveniles acquire critical life skills. More generally, parents are always reliable role models and thus, family living provides naive juveniles with ample social learning opportunities to acquire critical life skills, facilitating the evolution of prolonged parent offspring associations.