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Social learning has important ecological and evolutionary consequences but the role of certain factors, such as social rank, neophobia (i.e., avoidance of novel stimuli), persistence, and task-reward association, remain less understood. We examined the role of these factors in social learning by captive coyotes (Canis latrans) via three studies. Study 1 involved individual animals and eliminated object neophobia by familiarizing the subjects to the testing apparatus prior to testing. Studies 2 and 3 used mated pairs to assess social rank, and included object neophobia, but differed in that study 3 decoupled the food reward from the testing apparatus (i.e., altered task-reward association). For all three studies, we compared performance between coyotes that received a demonstration from a conspecific to control animals with no demonstration prior to testing. Coyotes displayed social learning during study 1; coyotes with a demonstrator were faster and more successful at solving the puzzle box but did not necessarily use the same modality as that observed to be successful. In study 2, there was no difference in success between treatment groups but this is likely because only one coyote within each pair was successful so successful coyote results were masked by their unsuccessful mate. In study 3, there was no difference in success between treatment groups; only two coyotes, both dominant, hand-reared males with demonstrators were able to perform the task. However, coyotes with a demonstrator were less neophobic, measured as latency to approach the object, and more persistent, measured as time spent working on the apparatus. Social rank was the best predictor of neophobia and persistence and was also retained in the best model for time to eat inside the apparatus, a post-trial measurement of object neophobia. These results suggest coyotes are capable of social learning for novel tasks but social rank, neophobia, and persistence influence their social-learning capabilities. This study contributes to understanding the mechanisms underlying how animals gain information about their environment.
Young JK, Touzot L, Brummer SP (2019) Persistence and conspecific observations improve problem-solving abilities of coyotes. PLoS ONE 14(7): e0218778. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218778