Indexed on: 04 Oct '06Published on: 04 Oct '06Published in: Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society
A cornerstone of ecological theory is the ecological niche. Yet little is known about how individuals come to adopt it: whether it is innate or learned. Here, we report a cross-fostering experiment in the wild where we transferred eggs of blue tits, Cyanistes caeruleus, to nests of great tits, Parus major, and vice versa, to quantify the consequences of being reared in a different social context, but in an environment otherwise natural to the birds. We show that early learning causes a shift in the feeding niche in the direction of the foster species and that this shift lasts for life (foraging conservatism). Both species changed their feeding niches, but the change was greater in the great tit with its less specialized feeding behaviour. The study shows that cultural transmission through early learning is fundamental to the realization of ecological niches, and suggests a mechanism to explain learned habitat preference and sympatric speciation in animals.