Prey naïveté and the anti-predator responses of a vulnerable marsupial prey to known and novel predators

  • Eleanor C. Saxon-MillsEmail author
  • Katherine Moseby
  • Daniel T. Blumstein
  • Mike Letnic
Original Article


Prey may recognize and respond to predatory cues based on a period of co-evolution or life experience with a predator. When faced with a novel predator, prey may be naïve to the threat posed and/or unable to respond effectively, making them highly susceptible to predation. Burrowing bettongs (Bettongia lesueur) are one such species whose naïveté towards introduced predators has contributed to their extinction from mainland Australia. Here, we asked whether bettongs that were predator-naïve and bettongs which had been exposed to feral cats (Felis catus) for up to 2 years could discriminate between odors of a predator with which they shared no evolutionary history (feral cats), a predator with which they share a deep evolutionary history (Tasmanian devil—Sarcophilus harrisii), a novel herbivore (guinea pig—Cavia porcellus), and procedural control (a towel moistened with deionized water). We deployed scents at foraging trays and filmed bettongs’ behavior at the trays. Predator-naïve bettongs’ latency to approach foraging trays and behavior did not differ between scents. Cat-exposed bettongs increased their latency to approach in the presence of animal scents compared with control, and approached predatory scents slowly and cautiously more often than herbivore and procedural control scents. Taken together, these results suggest that bettongs have not retained anti-predator responses to Tasmanian devils after 8000 years of isolation from mammalian predators but nevertheless show that bettongs exposed to predators are more wary and may be able to generalize predator response using olfactory cues.

Significance statement

When prey encounter a novel predator, they are often naïve to the threat posed and employ ineffective anti-predator responses, because they lack either evolutionary or ontogenetic experience with the predator. Determining how prey identify novel predators is important to improve the success of translocations and reintroductions. Here, we examine how exposure of predator-naïve individual burrowing bettongs to predators influences anti-predator responses. By quantifying bettong responses to odors, we show that those experimentally exposed to cats increased their vigilance in response to odors from cats and Tasmanian devils. The results are consistent with the idea that prey generalize anti-predator responses based on non-specific compounds found in predatory odors, and that exposure to novel predators can improve anti-predator responses.


Prey naïveté Anti-predator responses Olfactory recognition Generalization Acquired predator recognition 



We thank the Arid Recovery staff and volunteers for their help with this study. We thank the two anonymous reviewers whose comments and suggestions helped improve and clarify this manuscript.


Funding for this project was provided by the Australian Research Council.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. The work was conducted under the UNSW animal ethics (APEC Approval 15/19A) and in accordance with The Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (1997).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Ecosystem Science, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Arid Recovery Ltd.Roxby DownsAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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