One of the cool things about being a member of an omnivorous species is that we eat lots of different stuff...oranges, porkchops, squash, strawberries, beef, apples, asparagus, salmon, portobella mushrooms, chocolate, coffee, mangoes...all those yummy flavors! On the down side, how do you know what will nourish you and what will kill you (death cap mushroom...'nuff said).
Well, part of the answer for humans and Norway rats is culture. We, rats included, can learn from other members of our species what foods are safe to eat. Aren't you much more like to try a totally new food when someone who usually eats it shares it with you rather than you trying it alone? So that's one major benefit of social life for an omnivorous species like rats and humans. Food is less likely to kill you. Now before you say anything, we have a lot in common with Norway rats! They live in groups. They eat our discarded, dropped, or still growing food. They have hitched their evolutionary wagon to ours and occupy the same parts of the planet that we do. We've inadvertently brought them with us.
But what if you are a non-social omnivore like a Syrian hamster? (They tend to live alone in the underground burrows.) How do you learn what is safe to eat? And, social or non-social, if you have a deficit in a nutrient, does that affect what you learn from others about food or affect what you do with the information that you learn? So we don't always have to rely on others. Turns out, however, that theoretical work on the evolution of social learning and use of public information lead to the same predictions to be tested: organisms should learn socially when it's the lest costly or less difficult way to learn as opposed to learning first-hand by sampling some unfamiliar food.
These predictions were tesetd in a study that I did with two students who worked in my lab, Max Wallace and Anne Young. After presenting the results at the annual conference of the Animal Behavior Society, we published a paper. To find out some answers, you can check out that paper here:
or just download it directly here: