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Welcome Back to School
Learning vs. Instinct

Our lives take a turn in the fall. Across the north, summer's long days shorten rapidly and temperatures drop. Meanwhile, millions of children return to school. Their year will be spent learning the skills they will need during their long human lives. At the same time, the monarch butterfly's annual migration to Mexico is underway. The butterflies are born knowing everything they need to survive, and we look on with wonder.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser has been learning about monarchs for over 20 years!

What is Instinct?
An “instinct” is an inborn pattern of behavior. It is something an animal can do without having to learn.

Learning Takes Time But Has Advantages
“Unlike humans, insects don't have to learn much,” says Dr. Karen Oberhauser. “They are genetically programmed to do things like fly, find food, and migrate (in the case of monarchs).

"In some ways, this sounds like a great thing. However, there isn't as much flexibility in behavior for organisms that depend on instinct. We need to learn how to talk, walk, read, etc, but think of the flexibility we have in determining what we do with our lives. Insects don't have that.”

Try This!

1) Instinct Examples: Monarchs Are Born Knowing How to...
As you learn about monarchs, keep a list of everything monarchs are born knowing how to do. For fun, compare the age at which humans learn to do the same kinds of things. Record all of your examples on this chart.

2) Do People Have Instincts? Interview a Human Parent
Do parents teach their babies to smile, or do babies smile by instinct? Do parents teach them to roll over, crawl, sit, stand or walk—or do babies do any of these things by instinct? Interview a parent about a baby they watched to develop. (Maybe the baby was you!) Record the dates each of the events below occurred for the first time;

3) What Does Dr. Oberhauser Mean?
As a class, discuss what Dr. Oberhauser means when she says that insects lack flexibility in their behavior. As you learn about monarchs this year, watch for advantages and disadvantages of this inflexibile behavior. Why does it make monarch conservation challenging? How does it help us to conserve monarchs?


National Science Education Standards

  • Organisms have basic needs.
  • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus. Behavioral response is determined in part by heredity and in part from experience.

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