Threat-sensitive learning and generalization of predator recognition by aquatic vertebrates
Ferrari, Maud C.O.
Many prey species lack innate recognition of their potential predators. Hence, learning is required for them to recognize and respond to predation threats. When wild-caught, these same species may show amazing sophistication in their responses to predator cues. They are able to adjust the intensity of their antipredator responses to a particular predator according to the degree of threat posed by that predator. This ability is therefore acquired through learning. While many studies have shown that prey can learn to respond to predator cues through different learning modes, little is known about what the prey are actually learning. The results presented in this thesis show that learned predator recognition goes beyond the simple labelling of predators as dangerous. Using fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas), woodfrog (Rana sylvatica) tadpoles and boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata) tadpoles, I demonstrated that a one time learning event, either through pairing with alarm cues or through social learning, was enough for prey to learn the level of threat associated with the novel predator cues. I showed that the level of danger associated with the predator cues was determined by the concentration of alarm cues when learning through pairing of alarm cues, or by the intensity of antipredator response displayed by the tutors and by the tutor-to-observer ratio when learning occurred through cultural transmission. Moreover, when subsequently exposed to predator cues, prey adjusted their antipredator responses according to the change in concentration of predator cues between the learning event and the subsequent exposure. Prey displayed stronger antipredator responses when exposed to higher concentrations of predator cues and vice versa. When minnows were provided with conflicting information about the danger level associated with a predator, they displayed a safety strategy and used the most recent information available to respond to predation threats. On a longer time scale, the data also suggest that woodfrog tadpoles are able to learn to respond to predation threats according to the risk posed by the predator at different times of day. Finally, I showed that prey learn to recognize particular characteristics of predators and can generalize their antipredator responses to novel species sharing those characteristics. However, generalization of predator recognition is dependent on the level of risk associated with the predator. Threat-sensitive learning is an extremely complex process shaped by the millions of years of selection imposed by predators on prey.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
CommitteeNeal, Dick; Gray, Jack; Gillott, Cedric; Brown, Grant E.; Blumstein, Daniel; Stookey, Joseph M.
fathead minnows - Pimephales promelas
boreal chorus frog - Pseudacris maculata
woodfrog - Rana sylvatica
learned predator recognition