Learning is widespread in the animal kingdom. From the small nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans to humans, learning appears to play a central role in adaptation to local spatial and temporal environmental conditions. Though the neurobiological mechanisms of learning and memory have been intensively studied, the function and adaptive significance of learning has only recently received interest. Using learning, animals may progressively adjust their behavior in response to new environmental conditions, suggesting benefits of learning on animal performance, at least in the short term. How does learning affect the overall fitness of an animal? What are the fitness benefits and costs of learning? How can we explain the natural variation in learning ability observed between individuals, between populations of the same species or between closely related species? What are the ecological circumstances that favor the evolution of learning? There are all emerging questions that are central to a better understanding of the evolution of cognition and animal adaptation. Here I review the recent evidence showing that learning and memory are molded by an animal's lifestyle within its ecological niche.
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