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J Exp Biol. 2004 Jun;207(Pt 13):2199-208.

Social responses without early experience: Australian brush-turkey chicks use specific visual cues to aggregate with conspecifics.

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Animal Behaviour Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.


Almost all birds depend upon early experience with adults and siblings to learn recognition cues. Megapodes, such as the Australian brush-turkey (Alectura lathami), have evolved a very different life history. Eggs are incubated in mounds of decaying organic material. Chicks hatch asynchronously and receive no parental care, so imprinting cannot occur. Nevertheless, chicks subsequently form groups with similar-aged conspecifics. We explored the perceptual basis of this aggregation response, focussing on likely visual cues, such as pecking movements and body colour. Experiments were conducted under naturalistic conditions in a large aviary, using realistic robot models and colour filters. The robots successfully evoked a range of social responses resembling those of a live companion. Aggregation depended upon both behaviour and morphology. Simultaneous choice tests revealed that brush-turkey chicks preferred a pecking robot over either a static model or a scanning robot, suggesting that responsiveness depends upon particular movement patterns. In addition, chicks were sensitive to changes in appearance but only those that affected radiance at short wavelengths. The mechanism underlying social aggregation after hatching hence involves relatively specific cues. This perceptual bias seems to be largely experience independent and may exploit attributes to which potential predators are insensitive.

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