Why is social learning important?

Recent years have witnessed an explosion of interest in animal social learning, the process whereby animals acquire skills and knowledge by observing or interacting with other animals.  Scientific interest in the topic stems from a number of sources:

(1) Neuroscientists, psychologists and animal behaviourists seek to understand the biological and psychological bases of cognitive processing using animal models, while social learning is of interest to ethologists and behavioural ecologists because it allows animals to make adaptive decisions and to learn about their environments efficiently.

(2) Researchers studying robotics and artificial intelligence are paying attention to animal social learning as part of endeavours to develop ‘imitating robots’ and related technology.

(3) Evolutionary biologists have recognised that social learning can affect evolutionary dynamics and equilibria, and have explored cultural evolution, while biological anthropologists and archaeologists recognize cultural transmission as playing a critical role in human evolution.

(4) Economists are increasingly interested in ‘imitation’, specifically in whom one imitates, since it potentially allows individuals to economise on computational costs, cash in on superior information and increase learning efficiency.

(5) The findings from animal social learning research can be applied to enhance conservation goals, by exploiting social learning methods to train life skills into captive-reared animals, thereby improving the efficiency of stocking and reintroductions.

Why is niche construction important?

Numerous animals manufacture nests, burrows, holes, webs and pupal cases; plants change the levels of atmospheric gases and modify nutrient cycles; fungi decompose organic matter; and bacteria engage in decomposition and nutrient fixation. This niche construction – the process of organism-driven environmental modification – affects evolutionary processes by altering selection pressures, generating feedback in evolution, on a scale hitherto underestimated, and in a manner that strongly influences the evolutionary dynamic. Niche construction also alters resource flows, with major ramifications for ecological dynamics.

Studying niche construction potentially helps us to understand evolutionary and ecological processes. For instance, the requirement to understand the causes of biodiversity and the factors affecting its loss are clear and relevant to the sustainable development of natural systems. Organisms frequently manufacture habitat and resources that support other species, thereby influencing the stability, productivity and diversity of ecosystems, with important implications for conservation and management. The niche-construction perspective potentially offers novel insights across many fields of science, including ecology, evolution and the human sciences, and a new generic paradigm with which to address old problems, such as the factors that underlying ecosystem stability and diversity.

Find out more about niche construction here.