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Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Mar 22;278(1707):898-905. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1891. Epub 2010 Nov 10.

Conceptualization of above and below relationships by an insect.

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Université de Toulouse, UPS, Toulouse, France.


Relational rules such as 'same' or 'different' are mastered by humans and non-human primates and are considered as abstract conceptual thinking as they require relational learning beyond perceptual generalization. Here, we investigated whether an insect, the honeybee (Apis mellifera), can form a conceptual representation of an above/below spatial relationship. In experiment 1, bees were trained with differential conditioning to choose a variable target located above or below a black bar that acted as constant referent throughout the experiment. In experiment 2, two visual stimuli were aligned vertically, one being the referent, which was kept constant throughout the experiment, and the other the target, which was variable. In both experiments, the distance between the target and the referent, and their location within the visual field was systematically varied. In both cases, bees succeeded in transferring the learned concept to novel stimuli, preserving the trained spatial relation, thus showing an ability to manipulate this relational concept independently of the physical nature of the stimuli. Absolute location of the referent into the visual field was not a low-level cue used by the bees to solve the task. The honeybee is thus capable of conceptual learning despite having a miniature brain, showing that such elaborated learning form is not a prerogative of vertebrates.

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