Behavioral indicators and conservation: Wielding" the biologist's tricorder" Academic Article uri icon


  • The adaptive behavior of organisms has been dubbed “The Biologist’s Tricorder” (Rosenzweig, 2001). In the science fiction television show “Star Trek”, the tricorder gave crewmembers astounding diagnoses on medical and scientific concerns, and this information somehow managed to be precisely relevant and needed. Likewise, behavior can provide astounding information on the status of individuals and populations in diverse ecological situations. This includes insights into the internal state of individuals, the richness of the environments in which they live, the suitability of their habitats, the extent to which they face danger from predators (and therefore the wellbeing of the predator populations), the carrying capacity of the population, interactions with their competitors and predators, and more. And foraging behavior often yields the most farreaching insight. Foraging behavior tells us about adaptations sculpted by natural selection, about population dynamics, about competition and predation, and about community structure. Let’s start with the foraging process. When a forager begins to look for food, the energy and nutrients it obtains contributes to its ability to maintain its body and state, and if it is sufficiently successful, it will have enough left over for reproduction. Thus, foraging decisions have contributed to its survivorship and fecundity, the two major components of fitness. Furthermore, if the individual is extremely unlucky, it may encounter a preda tor and, instead of finding food, it may become food itself. Again, its foraging choices contribute to survivorship, and hence fitness. Thus, we can expect that behaviors in gen eral, and especially behaviors linked to foraging, represent adaptive responses balancing the risks of mortality with the rewards of reproduction to maximize fitness. Insofar as foraging choices represent responses to fitness opportunities and hazards, they can serve as indicators of these ecological circumstances. Behavioral indicators can reveal such vital information as the best food types, the richest patches, the best habitats, and optimal movement patterns—knowledge that can be most useful in conservation and management.

publication date

  • January 1, 2007