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Instinct isn't everything, some study required

  • Story Highlights
  • Bad breath tells rats what is safe to eat
  • Dolphins use sponges to protect their noses
  • "Professor" ants teach younger ones the way to food
  • Orphaned elephant learns "truck" talk
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By Mark Peters
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Mental Floss

(Mental Floss) -- Social learning is a way of life for a variety of animals. And while the following 10 critters haven't exactly founded charter schools or research universities, they have developed some interesting study skills.

"Professor" ants teach the young to find food -- but usually just young ants.

1. Rats: Making bad breath a good thing

Much to the chagrin of exterminators, rats have about as many ways of avoiding poison as Eskimos have of denying that myth about words for "snow."

Young rats are suspicious of eating anything an older rat hasn't munched on first. In fact, some food preferences are even passed on in the womb. As for the elders, they learn what to eat (and what not to eat) by paying attention to each other.

So, if one rat has just been chowing down on gnocchi in garlic sauce -- and smells like it --other rats will be much more likely to scarf down some gnocchi themselves, provided the first rat didn't keel over and die.

2. Stripe-backed wrens: Birds of a feather learn together

According to some schools of thought in the human world, women should learn from women, men should learn from men, and never the twain should meet. Apparently, stripe-backed wrens agree.

While most bird species learn songs from unrelated neighbors, stripe-backed wrens pass down their calls along strict gender lines within the family. Because the wrens live in tight family groups and their young stay close to the nest for most of their childhood, there's plenty of time for the kids to learn to mimic their parents' chirping techniques.

However, scientists are still trying to figure out why the wrens segregate their home-school classrooms by gender.

3. Dolphins: Spongeworthy under the sea

Using tools was once thought to separate humans from primates, but now, it doesn't seem to distinguish us much from dolphins, either.

Recently, scientists observed dolphins using sponges to protect their sensitive schnozzes while searching for food on the rough sea floor. Not only that, but they also appear to be especially shrewd in their choice of tools. They only select sponges that are conical, not flat, so their noseguards stay on even if they get jostled during use.

Sponge use also appears to be a family tradition usually passed from mothers to daughters. Some researchers have even speculated that the behavior may have originated with one common ancestor (the "Sponging Eve," so to speak) that other dolphins copied.

4. Fruit flies: Dating on the fly

Male fruit flies learn from their dating disasters much like human males do -- by avoiding exes, or women resembling their exes.

If a male fruit fly is consistently denied fruit-fly first base by a certain type of female, he learns to avoid other females that have similar pheromones. We imagine this is akin to smelling Chanel No. 5 on a love interest, remembering a former love who wore the same scent, and suddenly feeling compelled to go home alone and bury your face in some Ben & Jerry's.

5. Bats: Sounds like a great meal

The next time you're at a fancy French restaurant trying to distinguish your foie from your gras, consider taking a cue from the frog-eating bat.

Sure, they know they should munch on frogs, but in those dark caves, it's difficult to tell the good from the bad from the poisonous. And that's why they rely on the old "I'll have what she's having" technique.

According to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, frog-eating bats learn to eat new prey by eavesdropping on their cave neighbors during suppertime. By associating new frog calls with the presence of edible food, these bats are believed to be the only predators that learn socially by way of acoustic cues.

6. Zebra finch: Singing in their sleep

Sometimes, sleeping on the job can be a good thing. At least, that's what we tell our bosses, after dutifully pointing out that it works for the male zebra finch.

Scientists studying these birds' brains have discovered that the same pattern of neuron activity that accompanies their singing time also occurs during sleep. So, rather than dreaming of birdseed banquets, they're actually rehearsing what they've heard while awake, which helps to drill new tunes into memory.

Humans also need sleep to firm up what they've learned during the day, which explains why cramming all night for a test doesn't always work.

7. Macaques: Monkeys that wash and learn

Scientists have long been impressed with the macaque, a type of monkey known to exhibit several unique learned behaviors, including wheat-washing, stone-handling, and group snowball-rolling.

And if that's not enough to make you want to adopt one, consider this: It just might fix you dinner.

Behavioral researchers on Koshima Island, off the coast of Japan, laid out sweet potatoes along the beach for a group of macaques, and one smart female monkey named Imo made sure to wash them in the ocean before eating. Pretty soon, other macaques had caught on, and the behavior has since been passed on to several new generations of macaques from Imo's troop.

8. Bees: The original sting operation

Aside from their affinity for bugs, CIA agents and bees have something else in common.

Scientists have noticed that when bees see rivals from other colonies hanging around a certain kind of flower (particularly if it's unfamiliar), they're more likely to check out that type of flower later.

The Bond-like bees also have their own "language," which may have developed as a way to keep other bees from eavesdropping. Using a complex system of movements and smells, bees are able to pass on crucial information within the confines of the hive -- where neither rival insects nor government operatives are watching (as far as we know).

9. Elephants: Tonka tricks for your trunk

We all know elephants are built like trucks, but what if your elephant starts sounding like one?

That's what happened in Kenya, where zookeepers were shocked to discover that Mlaika -- an orphaned elephant who lived in semi-captivity near a road --had apparently learned to mimic the sounds around her. Similarly, researchers documented an African elephant, living with Asian elephants, that mimicked the higher-pitched, chirp-like sounds of his Far Eastern zoomates.

While elephant culture probably doesn't place a high value on truck impersonation or cross-cultural karaoke in the wild, it's likely that elephants learn vocalizations from each other, and it's possible that elephants from different regions even have local dialects.

10. Ants: An apple for your teacher

While all the other entries on this list focus on animals that like to learn, it's far more difficult to find those that enjoy teaching (that arrogant, self-righteous calculus professor you had junior year included).

On the whole, animals learn by imitation, not pedagogy. In fact, scientists know of only one exception to this rule, and that's the ant.

In order to help the younger generation find the path to the grub, older ants utilize a technique called "tandem running." A professor ant takes the lead, but if it can't feel the eager limbs of the pupil on its posterior, the leader will slow down so the little learner can catch up. Though crude, this counts as teaching because the lead ants are willing to compromise their own bid for the ant buffet so their younger pals can catch up -- and that's downright humanitarian. At least for the ants. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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