Preparing for the challenges and opportunities of life: effects of early experience on adaptive plasticity in laying hens

Last changed: 14 February 2024
Photo: Young hen standing in straw

Farm animals are often reared in one type of environment but housed as adults in another. When moved, a lack of skill needed to adapt rapidly to the new environment can compromise welfare. “Adaptive developmental plasticity” is a phenomenon whereby early experience shapes later responses, influencing adaptive capacities and stress resilience.

We hypothesized that exposure to a diverse and stimulating early environment would prepare chicks to better cope with challenges and exploit opportunities later in life as adult laying hens. We  systematically varied the predictability and controllability of environmental enrichments of types that could be implemented in commercial practice during the brooding period (e.g. varying litter materials and perch designs). Their effects on behavioural, physiological and cognitive development were compared at different ages.

Photo: Small chicken eating from a trough

Besides identifying how best to prepare chicks to cope with future stressors (so minimizing reductions in welfare), this study also investigated how developmental plasticity could enhance positive aspects of welfare, such as exploration skills that help hens quickly find food and use nest boxes and other new resources when moved to the laying house.

This research project resulted in a PhD thesis and following publications:



Holt R. V. Skånberg L. [...] Newberry. R.C. Scientific Reports (2024). Resource choice during ontogeny enhances both the short- and longer-term welfare of laying hen pullets. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-53039-7

Skånberg L. Newberry R. C.[...] Keeling L. J. Scientific Reports (2023). Environmental change or choice during early rearing improves behavioural adaptability in laying hen chicks. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-33212-0

Skånberg, L. PhD thesis. 2022. Preparing for life : effects of environmental choice and change during rearing on adaptability in laying hens.  DOI:

Nazar, F.N., Skånberg, L., McCrea, K., Keeling, L.J., 2022. Increasing Environmental Complexity by Providing Different Types of Litter and Perches during Early Rearing Boosts Coping Abilities in Domestic Fowl Chicks. Animals 2022, 12, 1969, doi: 10.3390/ani12151969.

Skånberg, L., Kjærsgaard Nielsen, C. B. & Keeling, L. J. 2021. Litter and perch type matter already from the start: exploring preferences and perch balance in laying hen chicks. Poult. Sci. 100, DOI: 10.1016/j.psj.2020.11.041

The project is financed by Formas and is a part of Centre of Excellence in Animal Welfare.

Contact: Lena Skånberg