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Anim Behav. 2000 Jun;59(6):1119-1125.

Stimulus enhancement in greylag geese: socially mediated learning of an operant task.

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Konrad-Lorenz Research Station, GrĂ¼nau


We recently observed the spreading of a novel tradition in a flock of semiferal greylag geese, Anser anser: an increasing number of individuals began to bite and chew the stems of butterbur, Petasites hybridus. Because this behaviour spread particularly fast within families, social learning seemed to be involved. We therefore designed an experiment with hand-reared goslings, which were socially imprinted on humans, to investigate whether and how the observation of an experienced tutor affects the acquisition of a novel skill. Goslings had to open the gliding lid of a box to get at a food reward. To each of seven hand-reared observers a human tutor demonstrated where and how to open the lid, whereas seven controls remained untutored. All observers learned to perform the task but only one of the controls succeeded. The observers explored more often at the position shown by the tutor than elsewhere and seemingly learned by trial and error. In contrast, control birds explored primarily at positions that did not allow them to open the box. These results indicate that in greylag goslings the observation of an experienced model facilitates the learning of an operant task. We conclude that stimulus enhancement followed by operant conditioning were the mechanisms involved, which may have accounted for the fast spread of the stem-chewing tradition between family members.


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