University of Jyväskylä

Birds learn by watching, what is potentially dangerous prey

Research finds birds modify their food choices through watching television. Social interactions within a predator species can have “evolutionary consequences” for potential prey – such as the conspicuous warning colours of insects like ladybirds.

Many animals have evolved to stand out. Bright colours may be easy to spot, but they warn predators off by signalling toxicity or foul taste. Yet if every individual predator has to eat colourful prey to learn this unappetising lesson, it’s a puzzle how conspicuous colours had the chance to evolve as a defensive strategy.

The study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution on 18th of December, 2017 was conducted at the Konnevesi research station at the Department of Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Jyväskylä, using the study system developed by Professor Johanna Mappes in collaboration with research groups from University of Cambridge, University of Helsinki and University of Zurich, solving one of the lingering issues related to the role of warning colouration in predator-prey interactions.

Great tits and bad food

A new study using the great tit species as a “model predator” has shown that if one bird observes another being repulsed by a new type of prey, then both birds learn the lesson to stay away. By filming a great tit having a terrible dining experience with conspicuous prey, then showing it on a television to other tits before tracking their meal selection, researchers found that birds acquired a better idea of which prey to avoid: those that stand out.    

Study demonstrates that the social behaviour of predators needs to be considered to understand the evolution of their prey. Without social transmission taking place in predator species such as great tits, it becomes extremely difficult for conspicuously coloured prey to outlast and outcompete alternative prey, even if they are distasteful or toxic.

Researchers suspect their findings apply over a wide range of predators and prey. Social information may have evolutionary consequences right across ecological communities.

Further information:

A new study of TV-watching great tits reveals how they learn<br /> through observation.

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