What can be the explanation(s) for learned behavior? (i.e. how do animals learn?) And do plants exhibit mechanisms similar to that of learned behaviors in animals?

Animals can learn in many different ways for example, some animals may learn by observing the behaviour of other members of their species and copying them. This is called social learning and a good example can be observed in guppies in which young fish will swim with older more experienced fish to feed and so learn the best route to the food source. We know that they are learning in this case because even when the older fish are removed the younger fish continue swimming to the food source by the same route.

Another example of social learning can be seen in many song birds in which chicks learn their songs by listening to the songs of other older birds. An interesting study of a bird called the indigo bunting found that when the young were raised in isolation without hearing the song of other birds their own songs developed abnormally. This shows how important social learning is in this species.

Animals may also learn by associating events which often occur together. For example, when a particular sound regularly occurs at the same time that food is available animals may begin to expect to find food whenever they hear that sound. This was demonstrated by a Russian biologist called Ivan Pavlov who trained his dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with food. After a while he found that on ringing the bell his dogs began to salivate even when no food was provided.

There are many more examples of learning in animals and maybe other people will comment on this further. I am not aware of learning in plants and since they don't have a nervous system or any kind of brain I'm not sure that learning for them is possible.

Not my area at all but surely there must be some degree of genomic/imprinted learning as well. Don't spiders (for example) have some "innate" template how to spin a web as well as social learning?

David, you are right that many animal behaviours (such as spiders spinning webs) do appear to be instinctive or "hardwired" from birth and are are presumably genetically/epigenetically determined. I suppose in these cases it really depends on how you define learning. If an animal has always known how to do something can it really be said to have learnt it?

aha yes good point and agreed! thanks