Intraspecific variation in cue-specific learning in sticklebacks

Miles K. Bensky, Alison M. Bell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animals must identify reliable cues amidst environmental noise during learning, and the cues that are most reliable often depend on the local ecology. Comparing the performance of populations of the same species across multiple versions of a cognitive task can reveal whether some populations learn to use certain cues faster than others. Here, using a criterion-based protocol, we assessed whether two natural populations of sticklebacks differed in how quickly they learned to associate two different discrimination cues with the location of food. One version of the discrimination task required animals to use visual (colour) cues while the other required animals to use egocentric (side) cues. There were significant behavioural differences between the two populations, but no evidence that one population was generally better at learning, or that one version of the task was generally harder than the other. However, the two populations excelled on different tasks: fish from one population performed significantly better on the side version than they did on the colour version, while the opposite was observed in the other population. These results suggest that the two populations are equally capable of discrimination learning, but are primed to form associations with different cues. Ecological differences between the populations in environmental stability might account for the observed variation in learning. These findings highlight the value of comparing cognitive performance on different variations of the same task in order to understand variation in cognitive mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-168
Number of pages8
JournalAnimal Behaviour
StatePublished - Mar 2018


  • cue-specific learning
  • learning
  • population differences
  • threespine stickleback

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology

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