High stimulus specificity characterizes anti-predator habituation under natural conditions.

Research paper by Jan M JM Hemmi, Tobias T Merkle

Indexed on: 25 Sep '09Published on: 25 Sep '09Published in: Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society


Habituation is one of the most fundamental learning processes that allow animals to adapt to dynamic environments. It is ubiquitous and often thought of as a simple form of non-associative learning. Very little is known, though, about the rules that govern habituation and their significance under natural conditions. Questions about how animals incorporate habituation into their daily behaviour and how they can assure only to habituate to non-relevant stimuli are still unanswered. Animals under threat of predation should be particularly selective about which stimuli they habituate to, since ignoring a real threat could be fatal. In this study, we tested the response of fiddler crabs, Uca vomeris, to repeatedly approaching dummy predators to find out whether these animals habituate to potential predators and to test the selectivity of the habituation process. The crabs habituated to model predators, even though they were confronted with real predators during the same habituation process. They showed remarkable selectivity towards the stimulus: a simple change in the approach distance of the stimulus led to a recovery in their responses. The results strongly indicate that in the context of predator avoidance, habituation under natural conditions is highly selective and a stimulus is not defined just by its current sensory signature, but also its spatio-temporal history.