Monday, July 15, 2024

Study finds social learning is child’s play for possums

Using a $9 dog treat toy, University of Canterbury (UC) Master’s student, Emma Godfrey, has conducted research showing – for the first time – that common brushtail possums can learn from their peers.

“As far as we were able to find, this study is the first to have looked into the social learning abilities of common brushtail possums, which is very exciting,” Ms Godfrey says.

The toy served as a puzzle she says, with five different coloured domes of which two were ‘target domes’, containing chocolate hazelnut spread.

“We were trying to teach them to open the target domes to get to the rewards as an incentive for learning.”

Meanwhile, 15 ‘observer’ possums in adjacent pens watched the ‘demonstrator’ possums for five nights before getting the chance to solve the puzzle themselves.

While two of the eight demonstrators solved the puzzle on the first night, and three succeeded on later nights, the possums who watched them did much better. All 15 observers succeeded in solving the puzzle on the first night, strongly suggesting they learnt from watching the demonstrators.

Although the experiment sounds fun, it has potentially serious implications for pest eradication in Aotearoa New Zealand, says Ms Godfrey (pictured, below).

“I think the more we can understand about how possums learn (or stoats or rats which New Zealand also aims to eradicate), this can hopefully provide us with ways of improving current methods or creating new ways of pest control.”

“New Zealand’s biodiversity is heavily impacted by possums so any new knowledge that can help with eradication is important in order to protect our native species,” she says. 

The next stage is to explore whether possums can also learn what to avoid by watching each other’s behaviour.

“More research needs to be done to test, explicitly, if social learning is helping possums avoid baits and traps.”

The paper, Social learning in a nocturnal marsupial: is it a possum-ability?, was published with supervisors Professor Elissa Cameron (Ngāi Tahu) from UC and Graham Hickling from Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research, in the Royal Society Biology Letters journal.

Working with experienced supervisors and publishing her first paper was exciting, Ms Godfrey says.

“It feels amazing! You put all this time and effort into doing the research, and then more time finalising the manuscript, so for it to be finally out in the world is a bit surreal as a first-time publisher.”

Her dream continues with a UC Aho Hīnātore Accelerator scholarship paving the way for a PhD at UC.

Latest Articles