Sprigg Lecture series: Professor Sonia Kleindorfer
Tuesday, 3 September 2013 from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM (ACST)
It is never too early to learn: songbird mothers teach their eggs
Professor Sonia Kleindorfer, Flinders University
Until recently, research on learning ignored embryos because they were thought to be incapable of learning. This paradigm was overthrown by our recent discovery that bird embryos learn calls while still in the egg (Colombelli-Négrel et al. 2012).
In the Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), host embryos learned the call better than did cuckoo embryos, which led us to speculate that prenatal call learning in this system functions to expose unrelated intruder cuckoo nestlings. We used cross-fostering experiments in which clutches of eggs were swapped between nests to test for the effects of genes and environment.
Our experiment unequivocally identified embryonic learning: adult wren parents called to their unhatched eggs; after hatching, the nestlings reproduced these calls learnt whilst in the egg. Cross-fostered and unrelated nestlings learnt the calls of their foster parents, indicating learning as the mechanism. Importantly, cuckoo parasites of the wrens did not reproduce this call, and parents responded by abandoning these nestlings.
This discovery of prenatal learning in a host-parasite system offers an exciting new understanding of learning patterns. Here, I discuss the main findings and the implications for how and why embryos learn across species.
Suited for 16+
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