Learning and Environmental Change of Human Origin

Human activity and population growth is causing rapid, radical changes in the habitats of many, if not most, species. In contrast to many forms of cue-based phenoty-pic plasticity, such as seasonal polyphenisms, learning can provide a wide range of beneficial responses to novel environments. Trial-and-error learning may result in 'innovative' behaviors, which may facilitate adaptation to environments quite different from those in an animal's recent evolutionary history. For instance, some research suggests that animals can learn to recognize novel, invasive predators in genera or families other than those to which native predators belong. Such innovative behaviors may help certain species invade novel habitats: birds with larger brains tend to establish themselves better in novel environments.

Global climate change represents one of the more striking consequences of human activity. As with other environmental change, learning will likely play an important role in the ability of species to cope with global climate change. Some birds and mammals have already begun to adjust their timing of reproduction to accommodate changes in temperature and the availability of their prey; it has been suggested that learning is involved in this accommodation. The extent to which learning facilitates species' abilities to cope with global change remains an open area of study with important implications for evolution and conservation. Although learning may allow species to adjust to global change in some behavioral contexts, climate change may conceivably select against learning. As noted above, learning is likely to evolve only under conditions of moderate levels of unpredictable environmental variation. If weather becomes highly unpredictable, as suggested by some global change models, learning may not be useful in tracking variability in weather. The links between learning and how species adjust to human activity remain to be elucidated.

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