How Animals Learn
Botswana Wildlife Guide

© Lion cubs taking notes from Older Brother
Play is an important part in the growth of any mammal species as it teaches survival skills. Antelope young running around and chasing each other are building up their strength and speed which will assist them in escaping form predators.

Learning - Young at play

Primates have very active young that are constantly wrestling each other, climbing trees, playing with and tasting objects such as sticks and leaves. The young will also copy what the adults do. Predator young are constantly playing with the mothers and themselves, stalking, hiding and attacking.These games are all part of learning for when they are adults and have to hunt and defend their territories. Some predators ie Cheetah and Leopard will catch a small prey and bring it back alive to the young. The young will then carry out the 'kill' as they learn.

Deadly Play of Hyenas

With Hyenas the 'play' starts early. The first-born sibling will attack a same sex sibling from soon after birth, preventing it from feeding. The sibling will eventually die. It is thought that this is to protect the hierarchical order. Hyena pups are born into a fiercely hierarchal setup where pups of dominant females will have dominance over lesser adults.

By killing the competition the order is protected. Pups of high ranking females inherit their mothers rank, but if the mother dies before the pup has grown then the pup loses its status, often being chased out of the clan.

Learning and the conditions under which the learning occurs affects the behaviour of the individuals when they are adults. Animals such as Monkeys and Baboons that have grown accustomed to human settlements learn from an early age that food is available and they lose the fear of humans.

It is then almost impossible to stop this behaviour. Individual behaviour within a group of animals such as Baboons is learnt from an early age.

The Learning of a Baboon

I studied a troop of Baboons in the Okavango Delta for over a year. The troop roosted in the trees on an island across from the lodge I worked at and every morning would move onto the main island, returning to their roosting spot in the evening. It was at the time of the arrival of the floodwaters that interesting behaviour was observed - the reaction of the individuals of the troop to water.

The water levels of the seasonal floodplains of the Okavango Delta vary from year to year and season to season and it was fascinating watching the reactions of the individuals in the troop when it came to crossing the flooded plains.

They would always use the same crossing point and there was a great deal of 'discussion' at the edge of the water before the first Baboon would make the first move. The reactions depended on the level of the water. If the water was low all the members of the troop would walk across on all fours, but as the water rose individual traits would surface.

There was a narrow channel in the middle of the floodplain that posed a problem to some of the individuals when the water was high. Some would attempt to jump across, landing awkwardly, others would try to run across on all fours while others stood up on their hind legs and simply walked across.

Young ones would be soaked as they clung to their mothers, screaming until they got to the other side. I observed the youngsters employing the different techniques of crossing.

'What if' of Animal Behaviour

I got to thinking as to how the individuals decided on the easiest way to cross and why there was such a variation within one troop. Was it trial and error from a young age or did the youngsters pick up the habits from the adults?

The confusion at the crossing point seemed to leave little time for practiced learning. Could it not be that in the confusion and haste to get across the individuals charge uncontrollably across using whatever method is quickest?

By Leigh Kemp

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