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Environmental Unpredictability and the Value of Social Information for Foraging Starlings


J. Templeton, Department of Biology, Knox College, Galesburg, IL 61401, USA. E-mail:


Environmental and behavioral cues are useful sources of information that allow group foraging individuals to improve their foraging success. Few studies to date, however, have examined how varying degrees of environmental unpredictability may affect when and how individuals use the social information they obtain in foraging groups. In this experiment, European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) were tested to determine in which type of environment, predictable or unpredictable, social information would be the most valuable. Subjects were placed under one of four conditions: an unpredictable environment with either (1) an informing demonstrator bird or (2) an uninforming demonstrator; or a predictable environment with either (3) an informing demonstrator or (4) an uninforming demonstrator. Environmental predictability was manipulated by altering the meaning of available color cues. Subjects in the unpredictable environment that had an informing demonstrator performed significantly better than subjects in an unpredictable environment with an uninforming demonstrator, although only on the second day of testing. Subjects in both the predictable conditions performed similarly to each other. The results suggest that social information is more valuable to individuals in an unpredictable environment than it is in a predictable environment; however, there appears to be a time lag in the ability of the birds to recognize the value of this information.