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Keywords:

  • adaptive programming hypothesis;
  • behavior;
  • development;
  • food preference;
  • epigenetic transmission;
  • maternal care;
  • oxytocin;
  • rat Rattus norvegicus;
  • social learning;
  • stress

Abstract

Many vertebrates rely extensively on social information, but the value of information produced by other individuals will vary across contexts and habitats. Social learning may thus be optimized by the use of developmental or current cues to determine its likely value. Here, we show that a developmental cue, early maternal care, correlates with social learning propensities in adult rodents. The maternal behavior of rats Rattus norvegicus with their litters was scored over the first 6 days postpartum. Rat dams show consistent individual differences in the rate they lick and groom (LG) pups, allowing them to be categorized as high, low, or mid-LG mothers. The 100-day old male offspring of high and low-LG mothers were given the opportunity to learn food preferences for novel diets from conspecifics that had previously eaten these diets (“demonstrators”). Offspring of high-LG mothers socially learned food preferences, but offspring of low-LG mothers did not. We administered oxytocin to subjects to address the hypothesis that it would increase the propensity for social learning, but there were no detectable effects. Our data raise the possibility that social learning propensities may be both relatively stable throughout life and part of a suite of traits “adaptively programmed” by early developmental experiences. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychobiol 55: 168–175, 2013