Types of Animal Learning for AP Biology

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Apr 25, 2014

Practice problems for these concepts can be found at:  Behavioral Ecology and Ethology Review Questions for AP Biology

Associative learning is the process by which animals take one stimulus and associate it with another. Ivan Pavlov demonstrated classical conditioning, a type of associative learning, with dogs. As will come to be a pattern in this chapter, some poor animals were tampered with to help us understand an important biological principle. Pavlov taught dogs to anticipate the arrival of food with the sound of a bell. He hooked up these dogs to machines that measured salivation. He began the experiments by ringing a bell just moments before giving food to the dogs. Soon after this experiment began, the dogs were salivating at the sound of the bell before food was even brought into the room. They were conditioned to associate the noise of the bell with the impending arrival of food; one stimulus was substituted for another to evoke the same response.

A fixed-action pattern (FAP) is an innate, preprogrammed response to a stimulus. Once this action has begun, it will not stop until it has run its course. For example, male stickleback fish are programmed to attack any red-bellied fish that come into their territory. Males do not attack fish lacking this red coloration; it is specifically the color that stimulatesaggressiveness. If fake fish with red bottoms are placed in water containing these stickleback fish, there's bound to be a fight! But if fake fish lacking a red bottom are dropped in, all is peaceful.

Habituation is the loss of responsiveness to unimportant stimuli. For example, as I started working on this book, I had just purchased a new fish tank for my office and was struck by how audible the sound of the tank's filter was. As I sit here typing tonight about 2 months later, I do not even hear the filter unless I think about it; I have become habituated to the noise. There are many examples of habituation in ethology. One classic example involves little ducklings that run for cover whenever birdlike objects fly overhead. If one were to torture these poor baby ducks and throw bird-shaped objects over their heads, in the beginning they would head for cover each time one flew past them, but over time as they learned that the fake birds did not represent any real danger, they would habituate to the ean trick and eventually not react at all. One side note is that ethologists who study wild animals usually have to habituate their study subjects to their presence before recoding any behavioral data.

Imprinting is an innate behavior that is learned during a critical period early in life. For example, when geese are born, they imprint on motion that moves away from them, and they follow it around accepting it as their mother. This motion can be the baby's actual mother goose, it can be a human, or it can be an object. Once this imprint is made, it is irreversible. To this day, I believe that I was fed macaroni and cheese just moments after birth, which explains why I just can't get enough of the stuff … it's the only reason I can come up with. I was imprinted to this dish. If given an essay about behavioral ecology, andimprinting in particular, the work of Konrad Lorenz would be a nice addition to your response. He was a scientist who became the "mother" to a group of young geese. He made sure that he was around the baby geese as they hatched and spent the critical period with them creating that mother–baby goose bond. These geese proceeded to follow him around verywhere and did't recognize their real mother as their own.

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