Learned and instinctive behaviors both serve animals well

Mark NaleI’m at the beach in North Carolina – seemingly far away from anything that might be applicable to Pennsylvania wildlife – but that is not true.  There is a natural lesson to be learned almost everywhere.

Our rented condo – three blocks from the beach – overlooks a freshwater pond “lagoon” about 300 yards long and 35 yards wide.  Over 50 aquatic turtles inhabit the lagoon and are a common sight every day.

Common, but not unwary – protected by their natural instincts, they are difficult to photograph. Each time that I approached the pond, all of the basking turtles would quickly slide into the water. The swimming turtles, with their pointy black and yellow heads sticking out of the water, would quickly submerge and swim away.

If I had my camouflage blind set up along the shore, good photos would be a piece of cake, but who has vehicle space for a camo blind on a typical family vacation?

Then I noticed a strange behavior. While we were talking, my daughter and I had been leaning against our deck railing three stories up. When I looked down, I saw about 40 of the turtles gathered right below us. The other 10 or so were heading our way. As we observed later, some vacationers fed the turtles from their decks.

Just the sight of the two of us standing on the deck – and probably gesturing with our arms – was enough for them to think that they were going to be fed.

Both behaviors – fleeing from people who were walking along the pond (an instinctive behavior) and moving towards people standing on their decks (a learned behavior) – served the turtles well.

All animal behavior is either instinctive (inherited from their parents) or learned during an animal’s lifetime. If you are curious, the challenge is figuring out which scenario applies to a specific behavior.

Ruffed grouse flush farther ahead of gunners now than they did 100 or even 50 years ago. Is this a learned behavior or inherited?

Have antler restrictions resulted in deer becoming more “educated” and therefore more difficult to hunt? Questions such as these stimulate thought and help to make the study of nature so intriguing.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Mark Nale

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