Past experiences and future expectations generate context-dependent costs of foraging Academic Article uri icon


  • Because environments can vary over space and time in non-predictable ways, foragers must rely on estimates of resource availability and distribution to make decisions. Optimal foraging theory assumes that foraging behavior has evolved to maximize fitness and provides a conceptual framework in which environmental quality is often assumed to be fixed. Another more mechanistic conceptual framework comes from the successive contrast effects (SCE) approach in which the conditions that an individual has experienced in the recent past alter its response to current conditions. By regarding foragers’ estimation of resource patches as subjective future value assessments, SCE may be integrated into an optimal foraging framework to generate novel predictions. We released Allenby’s gerbils (Gerbillus andersoni allenbyi) into an enclosure containing rich patches with equal amounts of food and manipulated the quality of the environment over time by reducing the amount of food in most (but not all) food patches and then increasing it again. We found that, as predicted by optimal foraging models, gerbils increased their foraging activity in the rich patch when the environment became poor. However, when the environment became rich again, the gerbils significantly altered their behavior compared to the first identical rich period. Specifically, in the second rich period, the gerbils spent more time foraging and harvested more food from the patches. Thus, seemingly identical environments can be treated as strikingly different by foragers as a function of their past experiences and future expectations.

publication date

  • January 1, 2014