Social learning in birds and bats

While in Gamboa, we had the opportunity to spend time in the tropical forest mist-netting birds during the day and bats at night. Because I really enjoyed the field work and lectures on bth birds and bats, I wanted to find a topic common to both which I could write about for the blog. So I’ve decided to focus on social learning which we talked about a little in the field for bird song and which was the focus of a lecture about frog-eating bats by Rachel Page. Social learning, which is information acquired from other individuals, is used with self-acquired information as a strategy to avoid the costs incurred by each.

In Marler’s (1970) work on white-crowned sparrows, the tape-tutor paradigm was used to study song learning. Under this paradigm, a young bird is placed in a soundproof room while song is played to him using speakers. By design, this paradigm explicitly excludes social factors by not using an actual songbird as a tutor. Researchers, such as Baptista & Petrinovich (1984), discovered the importance of social cues in learning bird song because individuals of some species failed to learn song from tapes. There was also evidence from field studies (e.g. Beecher, Campbell, & Stoddard 1994) such that a young sparrow establishing its territory will learn the song of its neighbours. There are two general ways birds use social cues to determine which songs they learn: 1) they learn and memorize the songs of higher-status birds, and 2) the songs a young bird learns is dependent upon the relationship between student and tutor.

As night follows day, I’ll now move onto bats from birds. We learned about how frog-eating bats in the tropics prefer the calls of palatable over poisonous and small over large species of frogs. But how do they learn which call is which? The specific question put forth by Dr. Page is: “Can foraging be transferred via social learning?” She and her fellow researchers put a test bat together with an experienced tutor and then used that test bat as the tutor in the next trial. They found no evidence of degradation of the foraging information acquired and passed on between trials. Work was then then to establish under what circumstances bats use social learning. They found that the reliability of self-acquired prey cues affects learning of novel prey cues via a tutor in these bats.


Image: Experimental protocol used by Jones et al. 2013 to test social learning in frog-eating bats.


Beecher & Burt 2004, The role of social interaction in bird song learning, American Psychological Society 13:6.

Jones et al. 2013, When to approach novel prey cues? Social learning strategies in frog-eating bats, Proc R Soc B 280:20132330.


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