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Animal behaviour: Tortoise see, tortoise do

Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.0092 (2010)


Learning by watching others eliminates time-wasting trial and error. Because this adaptive behaviour has been observed in social animals, it has been suggested that such learning is an adaptation for group living.

To see whether 'social learning' might instead be a reflection of an animal's general ability to learn, Anna Wilkinson and her colleagues at the University of Vienna experimented with eight naturally solitary red-footed tortoises (Geochelone carbonaria; pictured above).

To obtain food on the far side of a V-shaped fence, they had to detour around this barrier. None of the control tortoises navigated around the fence but, after watching a trained tortoise's demonstration, all of the 'observer' tortoises reached the food. This shows that non-social animals can use social cues to solve problems.

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Animal behaviour: Tortoise see, tortoise do. Nature 464, 817 (2010).

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