Edexcel International A Level Biology

Revision Notes

8.9 Habituation

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  • Animals must respond to changes in their external and internal environments in order to survive
    • Changes in the environment, or stimuli (singular stimulus) are detected by specialised receptor cells 
    • Receptor cells send signals via either the nervous system or the hormonal system to the body's co-ordination centres in the brain or spinal cord
    • Signals are then sent on to the parts of the body which respond, known as the effectors
  • The process of detecting and responding to stimuli requires energy, so it is important that animals don't waste energy responding to non-threatening stimuli
    • Animals need to conserve energy for essential processes that increase their survival chances
  • If a stimulus is repeated many times with no negative outcome then an animal will learn not to respond to it; this process is known as habituation
    • An animal that doesn't respond to a stimulus is said to be habituated to that stimulus
  • Examples of habituation include
    • Humans no longer noticing a new smell or sound after a period of exposure
    • Wild animals losing their fear of humans after regular non-harmful contact
    • Animals learning not to be alarmed by the presence of non-predatory species
  • If a stimulus to which an animal has become habituated changes, then the nervous system will respond to it again
    • E.g. a constant low-level sound that suddenly becomes louder

The process of habituation

  • Animals become habituated due to changes in the transmission of nerve impulses from one neurone to the next
    • Nerve impulses are transmitted across synapses by the diffusion of chemical neurotransmitters
    • Neurotransmitters are released at the presynaptic membrane in response to an influx of calcium ions
  • When habituation has taken place fewer calcium ions move into the presynaptic neurone on arrival of a nerve impulse
  • As a result, less neurotransmitter is released and an action potential is less likely to be generated in the postsynaptic neurone
    • Fewer molecules of neurotransmitter bind to receptors on the postsynaptic membrane
    • Fewer sodium ion channels open
    • Fewer sodium ions move into the axon and the charge inside the axon remains negative
    • Threshold potential is not reached
  • The nerve impulse therefore does not reach the effector organ and the animal does not respond to the stimulus

Investigating habituation

  • Habituation to a stimulus can be studied by measuring the changes in an animal's response to a non-harmful stimulus e.g.
    • Snails often respond to a stimulus by withdrawing into their shell, waiting to emerge again until the harmful stimulus is likely to be gone
    • As snails become habituated to a stimulus the time taken for them to re-emerge from their shells after a stimulus gets shorter


  • Snail
  • A soft object with which to provide a stimulus e.g. a damp cotton bud or a blade of grass
  • Stopwatch


  1. Place a snail on a clean, flat surface and give it time to emerge from its shell
    • The same surface should be used throughout the experiment
    • Ensure that humidity remains the same throughout as snails will withdraw in a dry environment
  2. Gently brush the snail's head with a damp cotton bud or blade of grass
    • It is expected that the snail will withdraw into its shell in response to the touch
  3. Start the stopwatch and measure the time taken until the snail re-emerges from the shell and fully extends its eye-stalks again
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 10-15 times, recording the time taken until full re-emergence each time
    • Ensure that the same soft object is used throughout and that the location of the touch on the snail's body remains the same
    • Waiting for full extension of the eye stalks ensures that the same end-point is used each time
  5. Plot a graph of touch number against time taken for full re-emergence
    • The graph would be expected to show a gradual decrease in the time taken for full re-emergence as the snail becomes habituated to the stimulus
  • Note that snails are living organisms and so welfare considerations should be taken into account when using them for experimental purposes
    • Snails should be returned to a suitable environment that replicates their natural habitat at the end of the experiment
      • If snails were taken from a garden or the school grounds then they should be returned to the exact location from which they were removed
    • Any handling and transfer of snails should be carried out gently and quickly
    • Snails should not be exposed to high temperatures or an overly dry environment

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Naomi H

Author: Naomi H

Naomi graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in Biological Sciences. She has 8 years of classroom experience teaching Key Stage 3 up to A-Level biology, and is currently a tutor and A-Level examiner. Naomi especially enjoys creating resources that enable students to build a solid understanding of subject content, while also connecting their knowledge with biology’s exciting, real-world applications.