What Is Innate and Learned Animal Behavior?

Written by marion sipe
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What Is Innate and Learned Animal Behavior?
A spider knows innately how to weave its web. (Spider image by iumien from Fotolia.com)

Animal behaviour is what animals do or avoid doing. The difference between an innate behaviour and a learnt one is that innate behaviours are those an animal will engage in from birth without any intervention. Learnt behaviour is something an animal discovers through trial, error and observation. Most learnt behaviour comes from the teaching of the animal's parent, or through experimentation with its environment.

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Innate Behavior

Instinct is a powerful force in the animal world. It dictates the behaviours necessary for survival, especially in species that don't get much guidance from their parents. These behaviours are programmed into an animal at a genetic level. An innate behaviour is inheritable, passing from generation to generation through their genes. It is also intrinsic, meaning that even an animal raised in isolation will still perform the behaviour, and stereotypic, meaning that it is done the same way every time. Innate behaviours are also inflexible and are not modified by experience. Finally, they are consummate, which means that the behaviour is fully developed from the animal's birth.

Example of Innate Behavior

Sea turtle hatchlings provide one of the best examples of innate behaviour. They hatch never having seen their parents, so there is no opportunity for acquiring learnt behaviour. Yet, sea turtle hatchlings instinctively dig their way out of the buried hatchery. Even though this digging can take days, the hatchlings time themselves so that they emerge at night, when they are safest as they struggle toward the sea. There is no parent present to tell them they must wait for nightfall or that they must get to the sea. It is simply an innate knowledge, an instinct that drives them to action.

Learnt Behaviors

Learnt behaviours come from experience and are not present in an animal at its birth. Through trial and error, memories of past experiences and observations of others, animals learn to perform certain tasks. Generally speaking, learnt behaviours are not inheritable and must be taught to or learnt by each individual. They are extrinsic, meaning they don't occur in animals kept isolated from others, or away from the opportunity for trial and error. They are permutable, meaning that they can change over time, in contrast to the rigid repetition of an innate behaviour. Learnt behaviours can also be adapted to suit changing conditions, and they are progressive, meaning the behaviour can be refined through practice.

Example of Learned Behavior

Honeybees provide an interesting example of learnt behaviour. While the desire to find nectar is innate in a honeybee, they learn to associate given colours with the food they're seeking. In experiments, sugar water was put in a yellow dish, while regular water was put in a blue dish. The honeybees learnt that the yellow dish contained food and visited it while ignoring the blue dish, even when the positions of the dishes were changed. However, when regular water was put in the yellow dish and sugar water in the blue dish, the honeybees continued to visit the yellow dish until they learnt through trial and error that what they wanted was now in the blue dish.

Complex Behavior

Behaviour is actually more complicated than "innate" or "learned." Most behaviours are a mix of the two, neither completely innate nor entirely learnt. For instance, some innate behaviours--such as flying in insects--can be perfected over time and through experience. Locusts know how to fly from birth, but they get better at it with practice, eventually learning to expend less energy to accomplish the same flight. The same is certainly true of foals, born with the knowledge of how to walk; it still takes time for the foal to learn how to operate its legs.

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