Prenatal learning in an Australian songbird: habituation and individual discrimination in superb fairy-wren embryos

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    28 Citations (Scopus)

    Abstract

    Embryos were traditionally considered to possess limited learning abilities because of the immaturity of their developing brains. By contrast, neonates from diverse species show behaviours dependent on prior embryonic experience. Stimulus discrimination is a key component of learning and has been shown by a handful of studies in non-human embryos. Superb fairy-wren embryos (Malurus cyaneus) learn a vocal password that has been taught to them by the attending female during incubation. The fairy-wren embryos use the learned element as their begging call after hatching to solicit more parental feeding. In this study, we test whether superb fairy-wren embryos have the capacity to discriminate between acoustical stimuli and whether they show non-associative learning. We measured embryonic heart rate response using a habituation/dishabituation paradigm with eggs sourced from nests in the wild. Fairy-wren embryos lowered their heart rate in response to the broadcasts of conspecific versus heterospecific calls, and in response to the calls of novel conspecific individuals. Thus, fairy-wrens join humans as vocal-learning species with known prenatal learning and individual discrimination.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number20141154
    Pages (from-to)1471-1476
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of The Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences
    Volume281
    Issue number1797
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2014

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