Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 64, Issue 12, pp 1991–1997 | Cite as

Predators use environmental cues to discriminate between prey

  • Bo Terning HansenEmail author
  • Øistein Haugsten Holen
  • Johanna Mappes
Original Paper


The cognitive processes of predators play a central role in the evolution of prey characters. Numerous studies have shown that vertebrate predators may learn to associate the characteristics of prey (e.g. color) with the cost or benefit of ingesting them, thus forming preferences and aversions for different kinds of prey. Although the distribution and quality of prey types can differ between environmental contexts, which may make it profitable to attack a prey type in some contexts but not in others, the influence of environmental cues in decisions to attack has rarely been addressed. Recent theory suggests that modification of prey preferences by environmental cues such as microhabitat or temperature may influence the evolution of prey characteristics. Here, we show that the environmental foraging context may determine prey choice in great tits (Parus major) through learned association between the prey phenotype (appearance and palatability) and a contextual background cue. The same individuals were able to learn and maintain two different sets of food preferences and aversions for use in two different environmental contexts (aviaries with red or blue wooden boards), indicating a role for contextual learning in vertebrate foraging behavior.


Predator psychology Cognitive ecology Contextual learning Associative learning Prey preferences Sex difference 



This work was supported by the Research Council of Norway, the Academy of Finland and the Centre of Excellence in Evolutionary Research at the University of Jyväskylä. We thank M. Koivula and H. Nisu for assistance and Konnevesi Research Station for the experimental facilities. We also thank L. C. Stige for statistical advice and N. Barson, M. Iversen, N. C. Stenseth and S. A. Sæther for comments on an earlier draft of the paper. The experiment complies with the current laws of Finland.

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bo Terning Hansen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Øistein Haugsten Holen
    • 1
  • Johanna Mappes
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Department of BiologyUniversity of OsloOsloNorway
  2. 2.Department of Biological and Environmental ScienceUniversity of JyväskyläJyväskyläFinland

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