ABS 2014: Social Learning in an Australian Skink

Martin Whiting of Macquarie University began his talk at the Animal Behaviour Society 2014 meeting by lamenting how little we know about the social lives of lizards, especially when compared with mammals, certain insects and fish, and most of all, those pesky other reptiles, birds. But the more we examine lizard social behaviour and cognition, the more apparent it becomes that these animals are capable of substantially more complexity than we previously thought possible. Whiting presented some recent research on the Eastern Water Skink, Eulamprus quoyii, that bolsters this view.

Eastern Water Skink, from the Whiting Lab Page

Though not often social, many lizards, including Eastern Water Skinks, live at densities high enough to allow individuals to be within sight of each other. This is a sufficient prerequisite for social learning, defined as learning a task by observing others and modifying one’s own behaviour accordingly. Whiting asked whether Eastern Water Skinks were capable of social learning by training “demonstrater” individuals to perform certain tasks, letting “observer” individuals watch these demonstraters, and then measuring whether this exposure to the demonstraters enhanced the observers’ success at the task at hand.

The answers to Whiting’s questions were not simple. First, age matters—young individuals were twice as likely to demonstrate social learning than old individuals. Second, the task matters—lizards learnt to associate a colour with a food reward by watching others, but the prerequisite task of actually flipping over the coloured cap to access a mealworm was not spurred by observing other individuals do the same.

In the future, Whiting and his students hope to conduct similar experiments with a variety of lizard species that differ in their degree of sociality. These experiments will definitively address the role of learning in shaping the social lives of lizards, and I can’t wait to see they find!

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