Theoretical analyses have reported that in most circumstances where natural selection favours reliance on social learning, conformity (positive frequency-dependent social learning) is also favoured. These findings suggest that much animal social learning should involve a copy-the-majority strategy, yet there is currently surprisingly little evidence for conformist learning among animals. Here, we investigate this possibility in the nine-spined stickleback (Pungitius pungitius) by manipulating the number of demonstrator fish at two feeders, one rich and one poor, during a demonstration phase and evaluating how this affects the likelihood that the focal fish copy the demonstrators' apparent choices. As predicted, we observed a significantly increased level of copying with increasing numbers of demonstrators at the richer of the two feeders, with copying increasing disproportionately, rather than linearly, with the proportion of demonstrators at the rich foraging patch. Control conditions with non-feeding demonstrators showed that this was not simply the result of a preference for shoaling with larger groups, implying that nine-spined sticklebacks copy in a conformist manner.
Keywords: social learning strategy, evolutionary game theory, cultural evolution, social learning, conformity