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Investigating the use of learning mechanisms in a species that is rapidly expanding its geographic range
How would variation in environmental predictability affect the use of different learning mechanisms in a social bird?
In their pre-registered paper , McCune and colleagues propose a field-based study of social versus individual learning mechanisms in an avian species (great-tailed grackles) that has been expanding its geographic range. The study forms part of a longer-term project that addresses various aspects of this species’ behaviour and biology, and the experience of the team is clear from the preprint. Assessing variation in learning mechanisms in different sections of the grackles’ distribution range, the researchers will investigate how individual learning and social transmission may impact learning about novel challenges in the environment. Considering that this is a social species, the authors expect both individual learning and social transmission to occur, when groups of grackles encounter new challenges/ opportunities in the wild. This in itself is not a very unusual idea to test [2, 3], but the authors are rigorously distinguishing between imitation, emulation, local enhancement, and social enhancement. Such rigour is certainly valuable in studies of cognition in the wild.
Further, the authors predict that the contribution of individual versus social learning could vary between populations, as the core may contain fewer unfamiliar/novel stimuli than the edge, where artificial sources of water (for example) may be more common. They make an argument that the core, middle, and edge populations would experience differing levels of environmental predictability. If true, their field experiments could yield very novel results on how changes in environmental predictability affect social/individual learning in a single study species. Their data would then give unusual insights into the ecological value of individual learning and distinct forms of social learning – something that is not easy to test in wild animals. The authors consider a variety of alternative hypotheses that may ultimately explain their findings, and clarify their methods and analyses in fine detail. The authors also set out limitations clearly, and give a thorough account of their approaches and thinking.
The reviewers and I have a still-unanswered question, which is central to the study: what is the predictability or unpredictability of the core versus edge environments? Although the authors have explained similarities and distinctions between the different sections of the grackles’ range, their description feels a bit vague -- it's not as rigorous or well-defined as the rest of the paper. Such a lack of definition may be inevitable in the limitations of a preprint, but ultimately it does suggest that there may be real uncertainty about the qualitative differences between the core, edge, and middle environments. The authors do explain that a lack of variation in individual responses to the field experiments would preclude the testing of further hypothesis, but do not mention how a salient lack of variation in novelty/ predictability between the environments could impact their hypotheses.
An assessment/quantification of the rate at which the different populations of grackles encounter novel stimuli would be a cornerstone of the success of this proposed study. Certainly, the authors cannot address this in much more detail during the preprint stage, but they need to consider how to best assess/describe differences before starting the full study. Such an assessment could take the form of either a GIS desktop study (comparing, for example, rates of dam/canal construction in core versus edge sections of the distribution range), or observational/ movement data contrasting how frequently members of core versus edge populations encounter artificial sources of water/food in a given month/year. Considering the long-term nature of the larger project, it is possible that these data are already available, but I am speculating. I would highly recommend that such an assessment be undertaken, beyond the mere mention of expected differences. This would solidify the central idea that there are concrete differences between the environments.
Despite this concern, the authors attended well to the comments and recommendations of the two reviewers – both experts in cognitive ecology. It is a preprint showing clear thinking and a consideration of most of the challenges that may be encountered during the course of the study. My own opinion and the estimations of the two reviewers all underscore the originality and value of this project – this should be a very valuable and potentially novel study. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of the research.
 McCune, K. B., McElreath, R., and Logan, C. J. (2019). Investigating the use of learning mechanisms in a species that is rapidly expanding its geographic range. In principle recommendation by Peer Community In Ecology. corinalogan.com/Preregistrations/g_sociallearning.html
 Benson-Amram, S. and Holekamp, K. E. (2012). Innovative problem solving by wild spotted hyenas. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1744), 4087–4095. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1450
 Federspiel, I. G., Boeckle, M., von Bayern, A. M. P. and Emery, N. J. (2019). Exploring individual and social learning in jackdaws (Corvus monedula). Learning & Behavior, 47(3), 258–270. doi: 10.3758/s13420-019-00383-8