Birds learn to fly with a little help from their ancestors

Aug 14, 2007

A researcher at the University of Sheffield has discovered that the reason birds learn to fly so easily is because latent memories may have been left behind by their ancestors.

It is widely known that birds learn to fly through practice, gradually refining their innate ability into a finely tuned skill. However, according to Dr Jim Stone from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology, these skills may be easy to refine because of a genetically specified latent memory for flying.

Dr Stone used simple models of brains called artificial neural networks and computer simulations to test his theory. He discovered that learning in previous generations indirectly induces the formation of a latent memory in the current generation and therefore decreases the amount of learning required. These effects are especially pronounced if there is a large biological 'fitness cost' to learning, where biological fitness is measured in terms of the number of offspring each individual has.

The beneficial effects of learning also depend on the unusual form of information storage in neural networks. Unlike computers, which store each item of information in a specific location in the computer's memory chip, neural networks store each item distributed over many neuronal connections. If information is stored in this way then evolution is accelerated, explaining how complex motor skills, such as nest building and hunting skills, are acquired by a combination of innate ability and learning over many generations.

Dr Stone said: “This new theory has its roots in ideas proposed by James Baldwin in 1896, who made the counter-intuitive argument that learning within each generation could guide evolution of innate behaviour over future generations. Baldwin was right, but in ways more subtle than he could have imagined because concepts such as artificial neural networks and distributed representations were not known in his time.”

Source: University of Sheffield

Explore further: For bats and dolphins, hearing gene prestin adapted for echolocation

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Physicists discuss quantum pigeonhole principle

9 hours ago

The pigeonhole principle: "If you put three pigeons in two pigeonholes at least two of the pigeons end up in the same hole." So where's the argument? Physicists say there is an important argument. While the ...

Giant crater in Russia's far north sparks mystery

12 hours ago

A vast crater discovered in a remote region of Siberia known to locals as "the end of the world" is causing a sensation in Russia, with a group of scientists being sent to investigate.

NASA Mars spacecraft prepare for close comet flyby

12 hours ago

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.

Recommended for you

Molecular gate that could keep cancer cells locked up

9 hours ago

In a study published today in Genes & Development, Dr Christian Speck from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre's DNA Replication group, in collaboration with Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), New York, ...

The 'memory' of starvation is in your genes

12 hours ago

During the winter of 1944, the Nazis blocked food supplies to the western Netherlands, creating a period of widespread famine and devastation. The impact of starvation on expectant mothers produced one of the first known ...

User comments : 0