Taking the operant paradigm into the field: associative learning in wild great tits
Contributor(s)Leverhulme Trust, United Kingdom
Natural Environment Research Council, United Kingdom
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
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AbstractAssociative learning is essential for resource acquisition, predator avoidance and reproduction in a wide diversity of species, and is therefore a key target for evolutionary and comparative cognition research. Automated operant devices can greatly enhance the study of associative learning and yet their use has been mainly restricted to laboratory conditions. We developed a portable, weatherproof, battery-operated operant device and conducted the first fully automated colour-associative learning experiment using free-ranging individuals in the wild. We used the device to run a colour discrimination task in a monitored population of tits (Paridae). Over two winter months, 80 individuals from four species recorded a total of 5,128 trials. Great tits (Parus major) were more likely than other species to visit the devices and engage in trials, but there were no sex or personality biases in the sample of great tits landing at the devices and registering key pecks. Juveniles were more likely than adults to visit the devices and to register trials. Individuals that were successful at solving a novel technical problem in captivity (lever-pulling) learned faster than non-solvers when at the operant devices in the wild, suggesting cross-contextual consistency in learning performance in very different tasks. There was no significant effect of personality or sex on learning rate, but juveniles' choice accuracy tended to improve at a faster rate than adults. We discuss how customisable automated operant devices, such as the one described here, could prove to be a powerful tool in evolutionary ecology studies of cognitive traits, especially among inquisitive species such as great tits.
Natural Environment Research Council, United Kingdom (NE/I017208/1); Leverhulme Trust, United Kingdom (Grant RPG-265); Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Discovery Grant 435596-2013)