Animals Can Learn From Their Peers

Animals Can Learn From Their Peers
Bees pushing blue tab to open puzzle box for food.
Credit: Alice Bridges (CC-BY 4.0)

Scientists want to know how much animals can learn from their peers. How much animal behavior is genetic, and how much can they learn by watching other members of their species? 

Many years ago, a friend who raised golden labradors showed me how her favorite lab had learned to recognize the design and shape of an inverted can that covered a treat. She used ten similar cans, but only one had a pattern on it. She had taught her favorite dog to turn over that can to get the treat, which was an odorless biscuit to eliminate the dog using its sense of smell. 

The dog got the right can ten times out of ten, going straight to the can with the treat every time. She then took a puppy and put it with the adult dog and the ten cans. The puppy followed the adult dog one or two times, and then when it was alone, it ran straight to the can with the treat and turned it over. Clearly, animals can learn from their peers since the puppy had learned by watching the adult dog. 

Various experiments show animals learning from others of their species, but what about insects? Researchers at Queen Mary University in London trained bumblebees to do complex behavioral actions. The researchers set up a container with bumblebees and a blue lever that unlocked a door when pushed. There was also a red lever to open another door leading to a container of sugar water. The researchers successfully taught a group of bumblebees how to press the two levers in sequence to access the sugar water. 

When they added new bees to the container, the newcomers “watched the original bees and figured out how to complete the puzzle—showing for the first time that insects can learn multistep processes through social interaction.” We could challenge this experiment since bees have a built-in ability to convey information to other bees. When a bee returns to the hive after finding food, it can do a “dance” that tells its fellow bees where the food is. 

Animals and insects communicate, but language is unique to humans. The Bible story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) shows how essential language is to human interaction. Animals can learn from their peers, but God gave humans alone the ability to communicate using language and symbols. Only humans can convey moral issues, beliefs, and values through grammar and vocabulary.

— John N. Clayton © 2024

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