Identification of learning mechanisms in a wild meerkat population
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Vigorous debates as to the evolutionary origins of culture remain unresolved due to an absence of methods for identifying learning mechanisms in natural populations. While laboratory experiments on captive animals have revealed evidence for a number of mechanisms, these may not necessarily reflect the processes typically operating in nature. We developed a novel method that allows social and asocial learning mechanisms to be determined in animal groups from the patterns of interaction with, and solving of, a task. We deployed it to analyse learning in groups of wild meerkats (Suricata suricatta) presented with a novel foraging apparatus. We identify nine separate learning processes underlying the meerkats' foraging behaviour, in each case precisely quantifying their strength and duration, including local enhancement, emulation, and a hitherto unrecognized form of social learning, which we term `observational perseverance'. Our analysis suggests a key factor underlying the stability of behavioural traditions is a high ratio of specific to generalized social learning effects. The approach has widespread potential as an ecologically valid tool to investigate learning mechanisms in natural groups of animals, including humans.
Hoppitt , W J E , Samson , J , Laland , K N & Thornton , A 2012 , ' Identification of learning mechanisms in a wild meerkat population ' PLoS One , vol 7 , no. 8 , e42044 , pp. - . , 10.1371/journal.pone.0042044
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