Experimental evolution of prepared learning

Aimee S. Dunlap, David W. Stephens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Animals learn some things more easily than others. To explain this so-called prepared learning, investigators commonly appeal to the evolutionary history of stimulus-consequence relationships experienced by a population or species. We offer a simple model that formalizes this long-standing hypothesis. The key variable in our model is the statistical reliability of the association between stimulus, action, and consequence. We use experimental evolution to test this hypothesis in populations of Drosophila. We systematically manipulated the reliability of two types of experience (the pairing of the aversive chemical quinine with color or with odor). Following 40 generations of evolution, data from learning assays support our basic prediction: Changes in learning abilities track the reliability of associations during a population's selective history. In populations where, for example, quinine-color pairings were unreliable but quinine-odor pairings were reliable, we find increased sensitivity to learning the quinine-odor experience and reduced sensitivity to learning quinine-color. To the best of our knowledge this is the first experimental demonstration of the evolution of prepared learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11750-11755
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
StatePublished - Aug 12 2014


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