Blue jays, Cyanocitta cristata, devalue social information in uncertain environments

V. K. Heinen, David W Stephens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Animals are selective about when to learn by observing others. Models predict that social information becomes less reliable in uncertain environments, and therefore animals should reduce their use of social information in these environments; however, these parameters are often difficult to manipulate and control. We investigated how information reliability and environmental uncertainty affect the use of both social and nonsocial signals. Captive blue jays, Cyanocitta cristata, were given a choice between two perches, one of which was rewarded. Jays could see either a social signal (a conspecific) or a nonsocial signal (a light) that provided some information about the rewarded perch. The nonsocial signal was yoked to the bird that generated the social signal, ensuring the two signals were of identical reliability. We manipulated signal reliability (i.e. the probability that the signal correctly indicated the rewarded perch) and environmental certainty (i.e. the probability that a given perch was rewarded). Qualitatively, jays used both social and nonsocial signals more often when the signals were reliable, and used them less often when environments were predictable. However, jays used social signals less than equally reliable nonsocial signals when environments were unpredictable. Our results suggest that signal reliability and environmental predictability interact to determine signal use, but they do not affect social and nonsocial signals in the same way.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-62
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Behaviour
StatePublished - Feb 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank T. L. Rubi, T. J. Polnaszak, T. J. Bergman, two anonymous referees and the University of Minnesota behaviour group for helpful feedback on the project and manuscript. We also thank the numerous undergraduate students who helped with bird care and data collection. The Statistical Consulting Center at the University of Minnesota, and in particular Aaron Rendahl, helped with the analysis of this experiment. We conducted this research with the approval of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, University of Minnesota (protocol no. 1408-31752A). This research was funded with support from an Animal Behavior Society Student Research Grant, the Frank McKinney Fund of the Bell Museum of Natural History, and the University of Minnesota's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior . V.K.H. was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. 00039202 . Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


  • Blue jay
  • Cyanocitta cristata
  • Environmental uncertainty
  • Signal reliability
  • Social information
  • Social learning


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