Behavioral responses are influenced by knowledge acquired during the lifetime of an individual and by predispositions transmitted across generations. Establishing the origin of knowledge and the role of the unlearned component is a challenging task, given that both learned and unlearned knowledge can orient perception, learning, and the encoding of environmental features since the first stages of life. Ethical and practical issues constrain the investigation of unlearned knowledge in altricial species, including human beings. On the contrary, precocial animals can be tested on a wide range of tasks and capabilities immediately after birth and in controlled rearing conditions. Insects and precocial avian species are very convenient models to dissect the knowledge systems that enable young individuals to cope with their environment in the absence of specific previous experience. We present the state of the art of research on the origins of knowledge that comes from different models and disciplines. Insects have been mainly used to investigate unlearned sensory preferences and prepared learning mechanisms. The relative simplicity of the neural system and fast life cycle of insects make them ideal models to investigate the neural circuitry and evolutionary dynamics of unlearned traits. Among avian species, chicks of the domestic fowl have been the focus of many studies, and showed to possess unlearned knowledge in the sensory, physical, spatial, numerical and social domains. Solid evidence shows the existence of unlearned knowledge in different domains in several species, from sensory and social preferences to the left-right representation of the mental number line. We show how non-mammalian models of cognition, and in particular precocial species, can shed light into the adaptive value and evolutionary history of unlearned knowledge.
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