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Review ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Ecol. Evol. | doi: 10.3389/fevo.2019.00408

Challenges of learning to escape evolutionary traps

  • 1San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, United States
  • 2Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, United States
  • 3Bielefeld University, Germany
  • 4Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, United States
  • 5Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour, Germany
  • 6Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany

Many animals respond well behaviorally to stimuli associated with human-induced rapid environmental change (HIREC), such as novel predators or food sources. Yet others make errors and succumb to evolutionary traps: approaching or even preferring low quality, dangerous or toxic options, avoiding beneficial stimuli, or wasting resources responding to stimuli with neutral payoffs. A common expectation is that learning should help animals adjust to HIREC; however, learning is not always expected or even favored in many scenarios that expose animals to ecological and evolutionary traps. We propose a conceptual framework that aims to explain variation in when learning can help animals avoid and escape traps caused by HIREC. We first clarify why learning to correct two main types of errors (avoiding beneficial options, and not avoiding detrimental options) might be difficult (limited by constraints). We then identify and discuss several key behavioral mechanisms (adaptive sampling, generalization, habituation, reversal learning) that can be targeted to help animals learn to avoid traps. Finally, we discuss how individual differences in neophobia/neophilia and personality relate to learning in the context of HIREC traps, and offer some general guidance for disarming traps. Given how devastating traps can be for animal populations, any breakthrough in mitigating trap outcomes via learning could make the difference in developing effective solutions.

Keywords: environmental change, Learning, Optimal sampling, stimulus-response contingencies, novelty, neophobia, set-shift

Received: 21 Jul 2019; Accepted: 09 Oct 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Greggor, Trimmer, Barrett and Sih. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence:
Dr. Alison L. Greggor, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, Escondido, United States, AGreggor@sandiegozoo.org
Dr. Brendan J. Barrett, University of California, Davis, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, Davis, 95616, California, United States, bbarrett@ab.mpg.de