Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Biological Science



First Advisor

Lainy B. Day

Second Advisor

Kenneth J. Sufka

Third Advisor

Karen E. Sabol

Relational Format



Observational learning is a cognitive ability that allows individuals to acquire information or skills through watching others. Examples of observational learning can be seen in all major vertebrate groups and some invertebrates. Observational learning may confer a selective advantage to animals due to improvements in decision-making and increased behavioral flexibility. While studies of animals’ observational learning capabilities and the types of information acquired have been examined in many species, multiple types of observational learning have rarely been examined in non-rodent species in controlled laboratory experiments. Additionally, only recently have the neural mechanisms that support observational learning been examined. I sought to expand our understanding of avian observational learning and explore the role of the cerebellum in information acquisition. Using zebra finches I tested three types of observational learning (stimulus enhancement, observational conditioning, and imitation). I found that female zebra finches selected males based on observations of the traits of the females paired with the males but not based on observation of simply whether the male was associated with a female. Zebra finches were found to be capable of learning about the threat value of a stimulus by witnessing conspecifics undergoing tone-shock fear conditioning. However, I found no evidence that spatial information could be acquired via observation. I worked toward the goal of determining a role of the avian cerebellum in fear conditioning. Lesions of the lateral cerebellar nuclei did not interfere with fear conditioning. As humans and rodents are capable of all of these types of observational learning and have cerebellar involvement in fear conditioning, these findings illustrate a lack of conservation in observational learning and the role of the cerebellum in specific tasks across vertebrate classes. The ecological relevance of the type of information required for survival and reproduction has likely driven the evolution of observational learning in vertebrates as zebra finch ecology makes it unlikely that acquiring spatial information from conspecifics would affect fitness. Conservation of cerebellar contributions to fear conditioning may be conserved but the specific circuits involved may differ.

Included in

Biology Commons



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