Pre- and post-natal stress have opposing effects on social information use
Theoretical models of social learning predict that animals should copy others in variable environments where resource availability is relatively unpredictable. Although short-term exposure to unpredictable conditions in adulthood has been shown to encourage social learning, virtually nothing is known concerning whether and how developmental conditions affect social information use. Unpredictable food availability increases levels of the stress hormone corticosterone (CORT). In birds, CORT can be transferred from the mother to her eggs, and have downstream behavioural effects. We tested how pre-natal CORT elevation through egg injection, and chick post-natal development in unpredictable food conditions, affected social information use in adult Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica). Pre-natal CORT exposure encouraged quail to copy the foraging decisions of demonstrators in video playbacks, whereas post-natal food unpredictability led individuals to avoid the demonstrated food source. An individual's exposure to stress and uncertainty during development can thus affect its use of social foraging information in adulthood. However, the stressor's nature and developmental timing determine whether an adult will tend to copy conspecifics or do the opposite. Developmental effects on social information use might thus help explain individual differences in social foraging tactics and leadership.