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Fluctuating asymmetry is an estimate of developmental stability and, in some cases, the asymmetry of morphological traits can reflect aspects of individual fitness. As asymmetry can be a marker for fitness, it has been proposed that organisms could use morphological asymmetry as a direct visual cue during inter‐ and intraspecific encounters. Despite some experimental evidence to support this prediction, the perceptual abilities of animals to detect and respond to symmetry differences have been largely overlooked. Studying the ability of animals to perceive symmetry and factors that affect this ability are crucial to assessing whether fluctuating asymmetry could be used as a visual cue in nature. In this study, we investigated the ability of wild‐caught European starlings Sturnus vulgaris to learn to discriminate symmetry from asymmetry in random dot patterns through operant learning experiments. The birds did not possess a spontaneous preference for either symmetry or asymmetry. The birds learned a symmetry preference, although the learning process took longer than that previously reported for pigeons Columba livia and was more error prone. After being trained to discriminate symmetry differences in random dot patterns, birds successfully transferred their symmetry discrimination abilities to a set of novel stimuli that they had not previously seen. This indicates that starlings can form a mental categorization of visual stimuli on the basis of a somewhat generalized symmetry phenomenon. We discuss these findings in relation to the probability that birds use fluctuating asymmetry as a visual cue.


DOI: 10.1086/321323

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Published by University of Chicago Press: