How does animal imprinting work?

In the early stages of a bird or mammal’s life they will naturally imprint on their mother, observing and learning from her so that they can survive

Konrad Lorenz, a behavioral theorist, was the first to experiment with imprinting and discovered that the process begins as the young hears its mother while still in its egg. Then, within the critical first few hours or days of hatching, the young imprints on the first moving object that it sees – its mother. This process enables the young to identify its mother among other adults in the species, to find its original or similar habitat later in life and to identify potential mates, without inbreeding.

Altrical species are completely dependent on their mothers from birth, so imprinting happens much later. Precocial species are slightly more advanced after birth and consequently imprinting happens early, so despite their advanced nature they stay safe. Lorenz also discovered that the mother could be substituted for a human in captive breeding, essential for conserving endangered species. He thought that imprinting was irreversible but more recent research suggests that it can be reversed and that there is no sensitive period for imprinting to take place.


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Photograph: lutramania