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Different habitat preferences in animals have been interpreted mostly as a result of different adaptive design of the species and/or as a result of interspecific competition. We propose an alternative view of evolution of habitat preferences. Our model is based on progressive stochastic acquisition of cognitive clues discriminating habitat features which correlate with expected fitness. We assume that acquisition of each cognitive clue allowing discrimination of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ habitats (according to the average fitness in each habitat) will constrain further evolution, because each further clue will discriminate habitats only within previously acquired preferences. Simple simulation model shows that if it is the case, even the species with equal habitat-related fitness differences will rapidly diversify in their habitat preferences. Therefore, similarly as in the evolution of other species-specific traits, the evolution of animal–habitat relationship may be strongly affected by stochastic events and historical contingency.