Interacting with the mother during the daily nursing, newborn rabbits experience her body odour cues. In particular, the mammary pheromone (MP) contained in rabbit milk triggers the typical behaviour which helps to localize and seize the nipples. It also promotes the very rapid appetitive learning of simple or complex stimuli (odorants or mixtures) through associative conditioning. We previously showed that 24h after MP-induced conditioning to odorants A (ethyl isobutyrate) or B (ethyl maltol), newborn rabbits perceive the AB mixture in a weak configural way, i.e. they perceive the odour of the AB configuration in addition to the odours of the elements. Moreover, after conditioning to the mixture, elimination of the memories of A and B does not affect the memory of AB, suggesting independent elemental and configural memories of the mixture. Here, we evaluated whether configural memory persistence differs from elemental one. First, whereas 1 or 3-day-old pups conditioned to A or B maintained their responsiveness to the conditioned odorant for 4 days, those conditioned to AB did not respond to the mixture after the same retention period. Second, the pups conditioned to AB still responded to A and B 4 days after conditioning, which indicates stronger retention of the elements than of the configuration when all information are learned together. Third, we determined whether the memory of the elements competes with the memory of the configuration: after conditioning to AB, when the memories of A and B were erased using pharmacological treatment, the memory of the mixture was extended to day 5. Thus, newborn rabbits have access to both elemental and configural information in certain odour mixtures, and competition between these distinct representations of the mixture influences the persistence of their memories. Such effects certainly occur in the natural context of mother-pup interactions and may contribute to early acquisition of knowledge about the surroundings.
Coureaud, G., Thomas-Danguin, T., Datiche, F., Wilson, D. A., & Ferreira, G. (2014). Differential memory persistence of odor mixture and components in newborn rabbits: competition between the whole and its parts. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00211