, Volume 67, Issue 5, pp 715-725

Risk vs. reward: how predators and prey respond to aging olfactory cues

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Many animals use olfaction to find food and avoid predators, and must negotiate environments containing odors of varying compositions, strengths, and ages to distinguish useful cues from background noise. Temporal variation in odor cues (i.e., “freshness”) seems an obvious way that animals could distinguish cues, yet there is little experimental evidence for this phenomenon. Fresh cues provide a more reliable indicator of donor presence than aged cues, but we hypothesize that the benefits of responding to aged cues depend on whether the cue indicates the proximity of a predator or a potential meal. As prey cannot remain eternally risk averse in response to predator odor, we predict that antipredator responses should diminish as predator cues age. In contrast, animals searching for food should investigate aged prey cues if investigation costs are sufficiently low and the potential benefit (a meal) sufficiently high; thus, we predict that predators will maintain interest in aged prey cues. We tested these ideas using free-ranging rats (Rattus spp.) in two separate experiments; firstly assessing giving-up densities in the presence of predator odor, and secondly examining investigation rates of prey odors. As predicted, giving-up densities dropped once predator odor had aged, but investigation rates remained similar for aged and fresh prey odor. Thus, rats used temporal variation in odor cues to evaluate the cost–benefit relationship of responding to predator and prey odors. We suggest that the ecological significance of variable cue age needs more research and should be considered when interpreting behavioral responses to olfactory information.

Communicated by C. Soulsbury