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PLoS One. 2013 Dec 31;8(12):e84907. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0084907. eCollection 2013.

Tracking changing environments: innovators are fast, but not flexible learners.

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School of Psychology, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, New South Wales, Australia.


Behavioural innovations are increasingly thought to provide a rich source of phenotypic plasticity and evolutionary change. Innovation propensity shows substantial variation across avian taxa and provides an adaptive mechanism by which behaviour is flexibly adjusted to changing environmental conditions. Here, we tested for the first time the prediction that inter-individual variation in innovation propensity is equally a measure of behavioural flexibility. We used Indian mynas, Sturnus tristis, a highly successful worldwide invader. Results revealed that mynas that solved an extractive foraging task more quickly learnt to discriminate between a cue that predicted food, and one that did not more quickly. However, fast innovators were slower to change their behaviour when the significance of the food cues changed. This unexpected finding appears at odds with the well-established view that avian taxa with larger brains relative to their body size, and therefore greater neural processing power, are both faster, and more flexible learners. We speculate that the existence of this relationship across taxa can be reconciled with its absence within species by assuming that fast, innovative learners and non innovative, slow, flexible learners constitute two separate individual strategies, which are both underpinned by enhanced neural processing power. This idea is consistent with the recent proposal that individuals may differ consistently in 'cognitive style', differentially trading off speed against accuracy in cognitive tasks.

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