Study: Bad Parents? Zebra Finch Babies Will Learn From Someone Else

A new study in Current Biology found that zebra finches the experience stress from bad parenting choices will look to other adults to learn their life skills, which is both a positive and negative thing.

Zebra finches
Zebra Finches by Keith Gerstung from McHenry, IL, United States (Niagara Falls AviaryUploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There? a new study out that shows young zebra finches will who are under stress because of their parents?bad parenting skills will look to other members of the flock to learn how essential life skills. As researchers put it, according to Cambridge University press release they “avoid a bad start to life.?Published in the latest issue of Current Biology, the study is called “Early-Life Stress Triggers Juvenile Zebra Finches to Switch Social Learning Strategies.?

In the study? abstract, the researchers wrote:

Stress during early life can cause disease and cognitive impairment in humans and non-humans alike. However, stress and other environmental factors can also program developmental pathways. We investigate whether differential exposure to developmental stress can drive divergent social learning strategies between siblings. In many species, juveniles acquire essential foraging skills by copying others: they can copy peers (horizontal social learning), learn from their parents (vertical social learning), or learn from other adults (oblique social learning). However, whether juveniles?learning strategies are condition dependent largely remains a mystery. We found that juvenile zebra finches living in flocks socially learned novel foraging skills exclusively from adults. By experimentally manipulating developmental stress, we further show that social learning targets are phenotypically plastic. While control juveniles learned foraging skills from their parents, their siblings, exposed as nestlings to experimentally elevated stress hormone levels, learned exclusively from unrelated adults. Thus, early-life conditions triggered individuals to switch strategies from vertical to oblique social learning. This switch could arise from stress-induced differences in developmental rate, cognitive and physical state, or the use of stress as an environmental cue. Acquisition of alternative social learning strategies may impact juveniles?fit to their environment and ultimately change their developmental trajectories. 

This might seem like a bad thing, but researchers say it could make birds more adaptive to change in the long run. “These results support the theory that developmental stress may be used as an informative cue about an individual? environment,?said Dr Neeltje Boogert, from Cambridge University? Department of Zoology, who authored the study with colleagues from the universities of Oxford and St Andrews, according to the Cambridge press release. “If so, it may enable juveniles to avoid becoming trapped in a negative feedback loop provided by a bad start in life ?by programming them to adopt alternative, and potentially more adaptive, behaviors that change their developmental trajectories.?lt;/span>

In their various trials and control groups (read the Cambridge press release for more details on that), they found that the birds who were stressed out early on were better problem solvers, possibly because they learned more skills from various birds rather than just their parents.

Of course, it? not all good news: Stressed birds can easily get more sick due, and could spread disease when they move to other birds. How that might affect flocks is the researchers?next study.

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