When it comes to picking up clever tricks and learning to do something the way everybody else does it, social animals like humans, birds, and monkeys excel. One individual looks at what others in the group are doing and quickly learns to follow suit—an invaluable skill that scientists previously thought evolved in step with communal living.
But what about an individual that doesn’t live in a group and spends most of its life in solitude–would it still have that ability to watch and learn? Cognitive biologist Anna Wilkinson set out to answer that question by studying the red-footed tortoise, one of the loneliest beasts on the planet. These South American tortoises grow up without parents or siblings, and adults rarely cross paths. If a head-bobbing display determines that a stranger is of the opposite sex, the two will mate perfunctorily–otherwise they just ignore each other [ScienceNOW]. Yet in a new study published in Biology Letters, Wilkinson showed that even these hermits possess the ability to learn by watching others.
In her experiment, Wilkinson set up a V-shaped wire mesh with a bowl of treats placed inside the point of the vee. She then let a tortoise named Wilhelmina try to get to the treats, but the tortoise couldn’t figure out how to get around the mesh and instead tried unsuccessfully to go through it. After weeks of arduous training and about 150 attempts, Wilhelmina finally learned to go around the mesh to get to the treats.
Then the researchers let four other tortoises try the navigation test. Like Wilhelmina initially, they all failed to find a way around the mesh–but when they watched the trained tortoise maneuver her way to the bowl of goodies, they quickly picked up cues. Two tortoises caught on the first time they watched Wilhelmina, and two, including [Wilkinson's pet tortoise] Moses, managed on at least 11 out of 12 days [Science News] (but he could not part the mesh to get to the other side).
The antisocial tortoises’ remarkable accomplishment suggests that social learning, rather than a unique ability that evolved in social animals because it makes them more successful in group living, is simply another dimension of general learning, which depends only on an animal’s cognitive abilities, Wilkinson says [ScienceNOW]. Louis Lefebvre, an animal behaviorist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, added: “Information in the environment is information in the environment, whether it’s given to you by an animal” or not…. “This study confirms it in a nice way” [ScienceNOW].
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Image: Martin Krondorfe