Maternal predator-exposure has lifelong consequences for offspring learning in threespined sticklebacks
Learning is an important form of phenotypic plasticity that allows organisms to adjust their behaviour to the environment. An individual's learning performance can be affected by its mother's environment. For example, mothers exposed to stressors, such as restraint and forced swimming, often produce offspring with impaired learning performance. However, it is unclear whether there are maternal effects on offspring learning when mothers are exposed to ecologically relevant stressors, such as predation risk. Here, we examined whether maternal predator-exposure affects adult offsprings’ learning of a discrimination task in threespined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Mothers were either repeatedly chased by a model predator (predator-exposed) or not (unexposed) while producing eggs. Performance of adult offspring from predator-exposed and unexposed mothers was assessed in a discrimination task that paired a particular coloured chamber with a food reward. Following training, all offspring learned the colour-association, but offspring of predator-exposed mothers located the food reward more slowly than offspring of unexposed mothers. This pattern was not driven by initial differences in exploratory behaviour. These results demonstrate that an ecologically relevant stressor (predation risk) can induce maternal effects on offspring learning, and perhaps behavioural plasticity more generally, that last into adulthood.