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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1991 Nov;66(4):303-45.

Mechanisms of avian imprinting: a review.

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University of Cambridge, Department of Zoology, England.


Filial imprinting is the process through which early social preferences become restricted to a particular object or class of objects. Evidence is presented showing that filial preferences are formed not only as a result of learning through exposure to an object, but also under the influence of visual and auditory predispositions. The development of these predispositions is dependent upon certain non-specific experience. There is little evidence for an endogenously affected sensitive period for imprinting. It is more likely that the end of sensitivity is a result of the imprinting process itself. Similarly, it is now firmly established that filial and sexual preferences are reversible. Evidence suggests, however, that the first stimulus to which the young animal is exposed may exert a greater influence on filial preferences than subsequent stimuli. The learning process of imprinting is often regarded as being different from conventional associative learning. However, the imprinting object itself can function as a reinforcer. Recent studies have attempted to test predictions from an interpretation of filial imprinting as a form of associative learning. The first results suggest that 'blocking' may occur in imprinting, whilst there is no evidence for 'overshadowing'. Social interactions with siblings and parent(-surrogates) have been shown to affect the formation of filial and sexual preferences. The influence of these interactions is particularly prominent in sexual imprinting, making earlier claims about naïve species-specific biases unlikely. Although auditory stimuli play an important role in the formation of social attachments, there is little evidence for auditory imprinting per se. Auditory preferences formed as a result of mere (pre- or postnatal) exposure are relatively weak and short-lasting. Exposure to visual stimuli during auditory training significantly improves auditory learning, possibly through a process of reinforcement. It is becoming increasingly clear that filial and sexual imprinting are two different (although perhaps analogous) processes. Different mechanisms are likely to underlie the two processes, although there is evidence to suggest that the same brain region is involved in recognition of familiar stimuli in both filial and sexual imprinting. There is little evidence for a direct role of hormones in the learning process of imprinting. Androgen metabolism may be a factor constraining the development of a predisposition in the chick. Research into the neural mechanism of filial imprinting in the chick has revealed that a restricted part of the forebrain (IMHV) is likely to be a site of memory storage.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS).

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