imprinting, acquisition of behavior in many animal species, in which, at a critical period early in life, the animals form strong and lasting attachments. Imprinting is important for normal social development. The term was first used by the zoologist Konrad Lorenz to describe the way in which the social characteristics of greylag geese and other fowl become instilled in their young offspring (see ethology). In natural circumstances imprinting, to the mother, food, or surroundings, occurs instinctively during a biologically fixed time span; it is very difficult to extinguish. Under experimental conditions chicks and ducklings readily become imprinted to an appropriate model such as a moving decoy or a human being. Subsequent learning may be tied to and reinforced by the imprinted object, and later social behaviors, such as the greeting ceremony and courtship, may be directed exclusively to the mother-substitute. In fowl, attachment increases with the amount of effort the offspring must exert to follow the imprinted object. The onset of fear in an organism is believed to end the period of imprintability. There is evidence that in fowl the imprinting period begins before hatching and is characterized by vocal communication between mother and unhatched ducklings.
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