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Star sea anemones are found to be capable of associative learning


sea ​​star anemone. Credit: Gaëlle Botton-Amiot

Three biologists, two from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and the third with the University of Barcelona in Spain, have discovered that a species of Cnidaria is capable of associative learning. Gaelle Botton-Amiot, Simon Sprecher, and Pedro Martinez publish their study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Associative learning was first reported by Ivan Pavlov, whose experiments with dogs showed that they would salivate at the sound of a bell when trained to treats. In humans, an example of associative learning is illustrated by an aversion to touching a hot stove. This learning consists of two parts: memory and a type of response processing. Associative learning is found in all kinds of creatures, but the researchers hypothesized that the minimum system requirement is the brain.

In this new effort, the researchers wondered if the brain was actually necessary. Note that Cnidaria phylum has no brain. They have a network of nerves but no known organ that handles neural activity. To see if these creatures are capable of associative learning, the researchers chose to focus on star sea anemones, marine creatures with light-responsive organs and retractable tentacles that respond to stimuli.

Star sea anemones are found to be capable of associative learning

Sea anemone head. Credit: Gaëlle Botton-Amiot

The research team collected many samples and brought them to their laboratory for study. All of them were subjected to bright light and/or electric shock. Some anemones were exposed to light and electrocution at the same time, while others received it regardless of the timing.

Over time, anemones that received both light and shock learned to associate them as a single event and responded in kind. This was demonstrated by turning on the light without applying the shock to observe whether the anemone would retract its tentacles anyway. The research team found that 72% of them did, showing that the creature was able to remember that shocks came with sudden bursts of light and then by responding as it normally would to the shock – by retracting its claws.

more information:
Gaelle Botton-Amiot et al, Associative Learning in Nematostella vectensis cnidarians, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2220685120

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