Learning in foraging and social contexts

Goal: Learning, behavioral change by experience, is a ubiquitous phenomenon in animals. Learning may affect every major life activity such as foraging, reproduction or social interactions. Learning is generally considered a behavioral optimization process and assumed to help animals to adjust their behaviors in varying environments. The project focuses on learning in the very early stages of life by plant-inhabiting predatory mites in foraging contexts. These predatory mites are important natural enemies of herbivorous mites and insects, used in biological control around the world. The project addresses three major intertwined issues. Issue (1) pursues the questions which learning mechanisms (associative and non-associative) the mites are able to use early in life, which cues they learn and how different learning mechanisms affect adult foraging behaviors. Issue (2) seeks to unravel the ultimate costs and benefits of early learning, i.e. how early learning affects fitness-related life-history traits and whether learning and improved foraging on a given prey comes at the expense of being less flexible in exploiting other prey and in processing novel information later in life. Issue (3) aims at determining the population level consequences of early learning. The experimental work of the project consists primarily of manipulative experiments at the individual and population levels. The spatial scale of the experiments ranges from small scale cages and arenas to whole plants, and plant groups.

Institutions: University of Vienna, Boku, Centro Universitário UNIVATES
Collaborators: Peter Schausberger, Michael Seiter, Inga C. Christiansen, Marliza Beatris Reichert, Sandra Szin, Stefan Peneder
Funding: Austrian Science Fund (FWF)