Keynan et al. (2016) Task-dependent differences in learning by subordinate and dominant wild Arabian babblers. Ethology, DOI: 10.1111/eth.12488
Learning and innovation abilities have been studied extensively in flocking birds, but their importance and relevance in cooperatively breeding birds have been relatively unexplored. We studied the acquisition of novel foraging skills in 14 groups of wild, cooperatively breeding Arabian babblers (Turdoides squamiceps). While in a previous study we found that subordinate individuals were usually the first to learn to remove black rubber lids from a foraging grid, here we show that dominant individuals were the first to succeed in shifting from these black rubber lids to newly introduced white rubber lids. We also found that in all groups where one forager learned to shift to the white lids, the rest of the foragers also learned to do so, suggesting that this behaviour may be transmitted among group members. Although dominant individuals were almost always the first to remove white lids, once starting to remove white lids, dominants and subordinates learned equally well to prefer white over black lids based on differential reinforcement (food was provided only under white lids). Together with our previous study, our results suggest that differences in learning between dominants and subordinates may be task-specific, which may represent different cognitive strategies: subordinates may explore a more diverse range of foraging opportunities, while dominants may be better at generalizing from familiar tasks to similar ones.