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Introduction to Animal Behavior

Author(s): Deanne Erdmann, MS

Learned Animal Behavior

Learning is modification of a behavior as a result of specific experiences. Learned behaviors allow an animal to adjust to changing environmental and social conditions.  An organism's behavior is related to its environment and can be influenced by the presence or absence of other organisms, availability of food and other resources, and physical characteristics of the environment. When the environment changes, an organism's behavior patterns also may change in response. 

Studies have shown that there are several ways in which animals learn.

  • Habituation is a simple kind of learning involving loss of responsiveness to repetitive stimuli that do not reward or harm the animal. This allows an animal to concentrate energy on signals that are important to survival and reproduction. 
  • Associative learning involves the linking of one kind of stimulus with another, or with a behavior. In general, an animal learns to associate stimuli that are relevant for survival. In classical conditioning, an involuntary or innate response becomes associated positively or negatively with a stimulus that did not originally elicit that response. Ivan Pavlov (1900s) experimented with a dog's innate behavior of salivating. He conditioned a dog to associate the ringing of a bell with feeding (which caused salivation) so that even with the absence of food, the ringing of a bell would cause the dog to salivate. Operant conditioning (trial and error) involves learning to associate a behavior with a reward or stimulus and modifying later behavior accordingly. This type of learning was described by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s using the "Skinner box," which rewards an animal with food when the correct colored button or lever is pressed.
  • Insight or reasoning occurs when an animal applies past experiences to solve new problems without a period of trial and error. This is the most complicated form of learning.
  • Imprinting is a specialized type of learning that is limited to a critical time early in the life of an animal. It appears to be irreversible. Konrad Lorenz discovered that by artificially incubating duck and goose eggs, he was able to observe the newly hatched goslings and ducklings. Because the hatchlings spent the first few hours with him, they formed a social bond with him instead of with their mothers. The ducklings and goslings "imprinted" on him, the first moving object they saw following hatching. Lorenz was impressed by the fact that a young bird does not instinctively recognize adult members of its own species but requires this special type of learning.