Learning through Observing: Social learning occurs across vertebrate species

Source: Pouca, C. V., Heinrich, D., Huveneers, C., & Brown, C. (2020). Social learning in solitary juvenile sharks. Animal Behaviour159, 21-27. Doi 10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.10.017

Did you grow up with younger siblings that liked to copy everything you did? Did you sometimes copy things your friends or their siblings were doing? They and/or you were likely trying to learn different behaviors and actions by observing you, and then doing the same. Learning by observing the actions of other individuals of the same species, or social learning, is how many species, such as dolphins, learn important things, like social and survival skills. Learning in this way rather than through trial-and-error can be advantageous because it reduces the time and energy put into learning.

This behavior may be expected in species that are considered social, however, did you know that even species that are more solitary also apply social learning? While they do learn through social learning, there are different factors that can limit the effectiveness of social learning for them. For example, the larger a group of individuals is, the better social learning works. However, learning has been seen to be negatively impacted if the group contains a high proportion of knowledgeable individuals. Another potential factor impacting the effectiveness of social learning is the quality of the action being observed, or demonstrated behavior. The varying impacts of these factors indicates that there is a complex link between social exposure and how well an observer learns.

In guppies, studies have shown that observers paired with poorly trained demonstrators learned better than observers paired with well-trained demonstrators, likely because the demonstrators were too fast. Source: Wikipedia.

A team of researchers from Australia set out to further investigate how different factors can affect social learning. Sharks are not often thought of as being social animals, but recent evidence indicates that they can have complex social lives. This makes them a good species to study social learning with. The extent of socialization varies between shark species though, and even between different age groups of the same species. Therefore, the researchers decided to see if juvenile Port Jackson sharks, which are more solitary in nature than adults, use social cues from specific individuals. They also investigated the impact of exposure frequency on social learning.

This image shows a Port Jackson shark, which is the species used by the researchers in this study. Source: Wikimedia.

The researchers trained some individuals to swim through one of two possible partitions to get food from a specific place in a tank. Other sharks that did not participate in the training were deemed observers and meant to either learn to get food from their trained counterparts, learn from other untrained sharks, or learn on their own. The researchers observed how long it took for the demonstrators and the observers to swim through the correct partition to get to the correct location in the tank to be rewarded with food.  

The researchers saw that the highly trained demonstrator sharks chose the correct location to get food the first time crossing the tank more often and much quicker than any of the other sharks, which proves that they are good demonstrators. 75% of the observer sharks paired with the highly trained sharks were successful in learning while only 21% of the observers paired with untrained sharks were successful. The individual learners took much longer to learn the task. Overall, this data shows that juvenile Port Jackson sharks use social cues to learn new routes for getting food.

Since juvenile Port Jackson sharks are solitary animals and still learn through social cues, and there have been other studies indicating that other solitary species learn through social cues, it is likely that social learning is characteristic of all vertebrates since individuals are likely to encounter and observe each other at some point in their lives. Also, since the frequency of exposure to the teachers did not impact how quickly or how well the observer sharks learned, it is implied that more training for animals is not always better.

Social learning can lead to changes in behavior across generations within a species. Many sharks and other species are migratory, and social learning may be how they learn and pass on their migratory routes. Further investigation of what leads to the formation of social groups and the role that social learning plays in ecology and behavior can help us to better understand not only these sharks, but also many other species. Deeper understanding of species’ learning and behavior can help us to better understand the impacts that our actions have on those species and what can be done to conserve them.

Edited by:

E.M.B. Doran

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Elisabeth Lang

I recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a Masters degree in Environmental Science and Policy. My undergraduate education was at McDaniel College, where I majored in Environmental Studies and Biology. My undergraduate research focused on land use change and its impacts on biodiversity in Central America using GIS-based research. My graduate research examined potential sea level rise impacts on National Wildlife Refuges in the Mid-Atlantic region using GIS. I am currently working at the US Army Public Health Center where I analyze environmental samples. In my spare time, I enjoy traveling, reading, and running.

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