Learning and Species Interactions

Learning is important to consider in all manner of species interactions, including mutualism, competition, predation, and parasitism. In all cases, learning by one species in the interaction has the potential to shape the evolution of traits in the other species. For example, learning by predator species is thought to have played a role in the evolution of warning coloration in potential prey species. Warning coloration is coloration that serves to advertise the noxiousness of potential prey, to the mutual benefit of both prey and predator. It is typically highly conspicuous. One advantage of conspicuous coloration is that it is easier for the predator to detect from a distance. However, conspicuous coloration has two additional advantages. It is learned faster by predators and remembered longer, effects which should favor the evolution of conspicuous coloration.

A prey's conspicuous coloration and a predator's propensity to learn conspicuous colors could evolve in tandem, a prediction that remains to be tested. The possibility that learning in one species may be shaped by interactions with another species has been suggested for imprinting in avian brood parasites. Female brood parasites imprint to their hosts before fledging, a process which causes them later to be attracted to the nests of host species. However, the degree of sexual imprinting by females on their hosts is dictated by a tradeoff.Imprinting must be strong enough to allow females to be attracted to the nests of the host species and thus continue the brood parasitic cycle, but not so strong as to prevent females from mating with males of their own species. One strategy circumventing the mate-recognition problem, which appears to be implemented in cowbirds, is self-phenotype-matching wherein the maturing cowbird learns what it looks like and interacts selectively with individuals that resemble it. In effect, the parasitic lifestyle has led to self-phenotype-matching filling the role of imprinting in cowbirds.

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