Learning is a key aspect of behavior that may greatly enhance the survival and fecundity of animals, especially in a changing environment. Wildlife conservation problems often involve increasing the population of threatened or endangered species, decreasing the population of species deemed over abundant or encouraging animals to move to or from certain areas. Learning is an example of reversible plasticity (for review see Dukas 2009), which typically remains open to change throughout life. Old associations can be replaced, relearned and reinstated, facilitating behavioral modifications across an individual's lifetime. Because learning is potentially demographically important, and because it can be used to modify individual's behavior, it may therefore be an important tool for conservation behaviorists (Blumstein & Fernández-Juricic 2010). Our aim in this chapter is to introduce the fundamentals of learning that will later be developed and applied in subsequent chapters.
Animal learning theory defines learning as experience that elicits a change in behavior (Rescorla 1988, Heyes 1994). There are three basic mechanisms, or types of experiences, that underlie animal learning. The simplest learning process is non-associative because it involves an individual's experience with a single stimulus. During this process, exposure to the single stimulus results in a change in the magnitude of response upon subsequent exposures to that stimulus. If the response increases, the process is called sensitization; if the response decreases, the process is called habituation. More complex associative learning mechanisms involve a change in behavior as a result of experience with two stimuli through Pavlovian conditioning (also referred to as classical conditioning), or the relationship between a subject's own behavior in response to a stimulus, which is called instrumental conditioning. Finally, learning can also occur as a result of interactions or observations with other individuals through social learning, but it is currently unclear whether social learning actually represents separate learning mechanisms than individual learning (Heyes 1994). Below we will describe these in more detail and outline the conditions that influence them. Later we will explain how knowledge of mechanisms of learning can be applied to wildlife management and conservation.
Non-associative learning: habituation and sensitization
What is it?
Single-stimulus learning is the simplest learning process and involves a change in the frequency or intensity of response to a stimulus.