Everyone knows the story of Konrad Lorenz and his goslings, right? It was a demonstration of imprinting: when young animals are exposed to a stimulus at a critical time, they can fix on it; Lorenz studied this phenomenon in geese, which if they saw him shortly after hatching, would treat him like their mother, following him around on his walks. Similarly, many animals seem to experience sexual imprinting, where they acquire the sexual preferences that will be expressed later on.
I just ran across a charming short letter about imprinting in cephalopods, and somehow the story seems so appropriate. Imprint a young, freshly hatched cuttlefish on something, and they don’t treat it like Mom, and they don’t later want to mate with it—they want to eat it. Lorenz was lucky he was working on birds rather than cephalopods.
The experiment is straightforward. Cuttlefish normally prefer to eat shrimp over crab. If, the day after hatching, small crab are put in the tank with the hatchlings for at least two hours, and then removed (the crabs are not eaten), then 3 days later when tested again, the cuttlefish will prefer to kill and eat crabs over shrimp. The procedure is very specific: they have to be exposed to crab for at least two hours, within 2 hours after sunrise on their first day after hatching.
The paper has a good, succinct description of why many animals would have this mechanism:
Precocial animals, like domestic
chicks and cuttlefish, which are
independent within hours of hatch
or birth and which receive no
posthatch parental care have
two options for acquisition of
information: bring it into the world
with you (unlearned preferences
for food, sexual partners and so on)
or pick up the information as you go
(trial and error learning). Imprinting
allows something in between:
a certain degree of flexibility in
response, useful for learning
information for which the timing is
likely to be predictable—food
seen in first few hours of life,
sibling/parents seen during
juvenile stages—but in which
specifying the exact details of
the experience is not useful.
An evil man could think of many nefarious things to do with this bit of information, I think.
Healy SD (2006)Imprinting: seeing food and eating it. Curr Biol.16(13):R501-502.