Nature or Nurture?

Carnivores, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

Innate vs Learned Behaviors

In any discussion of animal behavior arises the question of nature or nurture. Some behaviors are built into an animal’s instincts – they never need to learn them, they just come naturally. Instinctual, or innate behavior, is defined as “behaviors that occur naturally in all members of a species whenever they are exposed to a certain stimulus.”

Other behaviors have to be learned for an animal to exhibit them (or at least, exhibit them successfully) – they’ll usually be taught these by their mothers. Learned behavior is defined as a behavior which “an organism develops as a result of experience.”

For example, cheetahs do not have to be taught how to hiss, it is an instinctual behavior. On the other hand, while bears are often known for their fishing ability, this is actual something their mother needs to teach them.

So now let’s put you to the test… How well are you able to tell which behaviors are instinctual and which are learned?

Do bears learn to hibernate or are they born knowing how?

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Russel, an Alaskan Coastal brown bear, snuggled up during hibernation – photo courtesy of Cori Pearson

Answer: It’s a learned behavior!

For a bear to be able to go through hibernation, they have to be taught by their mothers. Bears in the wild receive cues from the environment such as the changing of light, temperature and food availability to help signal the time to hibernate. If all the bears needed were the cues from the environment, then all bears in captivity would be able to hibernate, but that’s not the case. Because hibernation, or torpor, is learned, captive bears are often unable to hibernate because they were orphaned as cubs; they didn’t get to learn how to hibernate from their moms.  Our brown bear boys Mak and Oso are a great example of two cubs who weren’t able to learn how to hibernate before becoming orphaned. Fortunately for them, our brown bear girls, Claire and Russel, were able to learn before being orphaned and they have been able to help show Mak and Oso how it is done… and it only took three winters.

Are lions born hunters or do they have to learn to hunt?

Wildlife Safari's Lion pride playing outside - photo courtesy of Cori

Wildlife Safari’s Lion pride playing outside – photo courtesy of Cori Pearson

Answer: Lions have to learn to hunt!

Lions hit maturity at the age of two and from birth to the age of two, cubs are learning all they need to know to survive. They are born with the instinct to pounce but the actual act of killing and eating of prey is learned from the pride. We are often asked if we give live prey to our captive lions. The answer is no for a couple of reasons

  • It’s not much fun for the prey animal- we’re all animal lovers here and we never want to see an animal stressed.
  • The lions were not taught what to do with the live prey – they may never get to eat if they had to catch it!

Although it seems natural for them, if we put a live animal in with the lions they would pounce and play with it like a toy and because they are large animals, they may actually kill the prey. That being said, there is no guarantee of what would happen with the introduction of live prey because our lions weren’t taught to kill and then consume.

Last question!

Do cheetahs have to learn to to run?

One of Wildlife Safaris ambassador cheetahs out on a walk - photo courtesy of Cori

One of Wildlife Safaris ambassador cheetahs out on a walk – photo courtesy of Cori Pearson

Answer: It’s instinctual!

Cheetah’s, just like humans and many other animals, are born with the instinct to sleep, to walk, and to run. They don’t need to learn this from a parent. An orphaned cheetah in the wild, or a human raised cheetah cub in captivity will automatically do these things. At Wildlife Safari we have our very own hand-raised cheetah ambassadors: Pancake, Khayam, and Mchumba. We love taking them for walks!

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