Center for Avian Cognition


Date of this Version



Published in Annual Review of Psychology 36 (1985), pp. 141-169.


Copyright © 1985 by Annual Reviews Inc. Used by permission.


In his recent Annual Review of Psychology article, Snowdon (1983) discussed the synthesis of ethology and comparative psychology. A similar synthesis of behavioral ecology and animal learning is beginning to take place. This article reviews developments in the behavioral ecology and ethology of foraging behavior relevant to psychological research on animal learning. The psychological literature shows that animals possess a wide range of learning abilities, including “simple” classical and operant conditioning; they acquire spatial, nonspatial, and temporal discriminations; they exhibit various forms of rule learning (e.g. matching-to-sample and learning set), and may even in certain senses learn language. Why does this widespread animal ability to modify behavior on the basis of previous experience exist? The answer to this question must include both a mechanistic (proximate) and a functional (ultimate) aspect (Tinbergen 1951; Alcock 1979). The mechanistic answer seeks to explain learning in terms of the mechanisms and processes that enable the animal to learn. The functional answer seeks to explain learning in terms of the role learning plays in conferring a selective advantage on organisms possessing those mechanisms. Psychological investigations of animal learning have emphasized mechanistic explanations whereas ecological and ethological investigations have tended to emphasize functional explanations. Complete understanding requires both kinds of answers, however, and the synthesis of behavioral ecology and psychology suggested here provides a basis for both kinds of analysis. Several recent articles have discussed the relationship between behavioral ecology and animal learning in general terms (Johnston 1981, Kamil & Yoerg 1982, Shettleworth 1983, 1984). Here we review those portions of the ecological and ethological literature on foraging behavior most relevant to animal learning and memory.