The Sprigg Lecture Series provides visitors with access to the latest research and thinking around scientific and cultural discoveries at a local and global level and to engage with scientific ideas that affect them and their world, now and in the future.
These lectures commemorate the life of Dr Reg Sprigg AO, a remarkable South Australian geologist who discovered the world's oldest fossilised animals in the Flinders Ranges in 1946, now internationally recognised as the Ediacara fossils.
It's never too early to learn: Songbird mothers teach their eggs
Professor Sonia Kleindorfer, Flinders University
3 September at 6pm. Book now.
Until recently, research on learning ignored embryos because they were thought to be incapable of learning. This paradigm was overthrown by our recent discovery that bird embryos learn calls while still in the egg (Colombelli-Négrel et al. 2012).
In the Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), host embryos learned the call better than did cuckoo embryos, which led us to speculate that prenatal call learning in this system functions to expose unrelated intruder cuckoo nestlings. We used cross-fostering experiments in which clutches of eggs were swapped between nests to test for the effects of genes and environment.
Our experiment unequivocally identified embryonic learning: adult wren parents called to their unhatched eggs; after hatching, the nestlings reproduced these calls learnt whilst in the egg. Cross-fostered and unrelated nestlings learnt the calls of their foster parents, indicating learning as the mechanism. Importantly, cuckoo parasites of the wrens did not reproduce this call, and parents responded by abandoning these nestlings.
This discovery of prenatal learning in a host-parasite system offers an exciting new understanding of learning patterns. Here, I discuss the main findings and the implications for how and why embryos learn across species.
Sonia’s research addresses the role of behaviour for adaptive capacity in changing environments. She did her university study at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Vienna, and University of Washington School of Medicine.
Field work underpins Sonia’s core research activity, including data collected on free-ranging baboons in Tanzania (1989-90, 1996-97), Acrocephalus warblers in Austria (1991-1996), Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands (2000 to present), and wrens and honeyeaters in Australia (2002 to present).
She is Scientific Director of the Flinders Research Centre for Climate Adaptation and Animal Behaviour and Head of Department for Animal Behaviour at Flinders University.