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J Anim Sci. 2002 Aug;80(8):2091-8.

Can goats learn about foods through conditioned food aversions and preferences when multiple food options are simultaneously available?

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The Macaulay Institute, Aberdeen, UK.


The objective of this study was to determine the extent to which herbivores are able to use conditioned food aversions and preferences to learn about the nutritional and toxic properties of food plants, when food options are simultaneously available. Conditioned food aversions and preferences have been invoked as important mechanisms by which free-ranging herbivores optimize food selection by learning about the negative and positive consequences of consuming particular plant species through a series of encounters. In most previous tests of this hypothesis, access to individual test foods has been separated in time, giving animals the opportunity to associate particular foods with particular post-ingestive effects. We presented animals with a more complex scenario by offering test feeds simultaneously during the learning phase. Such a test is an important step in assessing the importance of conditioned food responses as mechanisms by which herbivores learn to select an optimal diet. We first assessed the ability of goats to learn about test foods and their post-ingestive effects, when different conifer species were offered on separate days during the learning phase and animals were dosed with compounds eliciting positive, negative, or neutral post-ingestive effects. We then investigated the ability of animals to learn to make appropriate choices when all potential test foods were simultaneously available during the learning phase. The results confirmed that goats can learn to associate particular foods with particular post-ingestive effects and adjust their diet selection accordingly. The success with which animals made such associations was greatly reduced when they were presented with test foods simultaneously during the learning phase. When test foods were simultaneously available, animals tended to select a mixed diet, thereby reducing their opportunity to learn about the post-ingestive effects of particular foods. The results suggest that caution is required in extrapolating results of artificial conditioning experiments to free-ranging herbivores. The results also suggest that reducing the risk of toxicity through selection of mixed diets is an important component of a successful foraging strategy.

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