Predators are often confronted with a broad diversity of potential prey. They rely on cues associated with prey quality and palatability to optimize their hunting success and to avoid consuming toxic prey. Here, we investigate a predator’s ability to assess prey cues during capture, handling, and consumption when confronted with conflicting information about prey quality. We used advertisement calls of a preferred prey item (the túngara frog) to attract fringe-lipped bats, Trachops cirrhosus, then offered palatable, poisonous, and chemically manipulated anurans as prey. Advertisement calls elicited an attack response, but as bats approached, they used additional sensory cues in a sequential manner to update their information about prey size and palatability. While both palatable and poisonous small anurans were readily captured, large poisonous toads were approached but not contacted suggesting the use of echolocation for assessment of prey size at close range. Once prey was captured, bats used chemical cues to make final, post-capture decisions about whether to consume the prey. Bats dropped small, poisonous toads as well as palatable frogs coated in toad toxins either immediately or shortly after capture. Our study suggests that echolocation and chemical cues obtained at close range supplement information obtained from acoustic cues at long range. Updating information about prey quality minimizes the occurrence of costly errors and may be advantageous in tracking temporal and spatial fluctuations of prey and exploiting novel food sources. These findings emphasize the sequential, complex nature of prey assessment that may allow exploratory and flexible hunting behaviors.
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We thank the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, especially the staff on Barro Colorado Island, for logistical support. For fieldwork assistance, we are grateful to L. Albrecht, A. Shah, R. Hodgkison, and S. Ghanem. We thank M. Guerra for the bat photograph (Supplemental Fig. 1), the staff at the Institute of Experimental Ecology at the University of Ulm for technical support, and Patricia Jones and three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on the manuscript. We dedicate this publication to Elisabeth Kalko, our dear friend and colleague, who passed away in September 2011.
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