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Exposure to a novel predator induces visual predator recognition by naïve prey


The “life-dinner principle” posits that there is greater selection pressure on the species that have more to lose in an interaction. Thus, based on the asymmetry within predator-prey interactions, there is an advantage for prey to learn quickly, especially in response to novel, introduced predators. Here, we test the “learned recognition” hypothesis that posits that naïve prey species’ ability to recognise and respond to introduced predators can be induced through experience. We quantified the behavioural response of initially predator-naïve burrowing bettongs (Bettongia lesueur) that had been living in the presence (for 8–15 months) and absence of an introduced predator (feral cats—Felis catus) to models of cats, a herbivore (rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)), novel object (plastic bucket) and no object (control). We expected that if bettongs recognised cats as a threat, they would be more wary in the presence of cat models than either rabbit models, buckets or the control. Bettongs living without predators did not modify their behaviour in response to the cat model, but spent more time cautiously approaching the rabbit model compared with the control. However, bettongs living with cats spent more time cautiously approaching the cat model compared with the rabbit, bucket and control. Our results are consistent with the learned recognition hypothesis which suggests that a predator-naïve prey species ability to recognise novel predators is inducible through experience. Our finding suggests that antipredator responses of reintroduced species could be improved prior to release by exposing them to predators under carefully controlled conditions.

Significance statement

Predator-prey interactions have played a strong selective factor in the evolution of predator avoidance behaviour by prey. In order for prey to appropriately and successfully respond and avoid predation, it is essential that prey species recognise a predatory threat in the first place. The isolation of prey species on predator free islands, geographically isolated continents (such as Australia) and predator-free fenced reserves, means that prey are increasingly isolated from predator-driven natural selection processes. We studied the behavioural response of a population of initially predator-naïve burrowing bettongs that had been living in the presence (for 8–15 months) and absence of feral cats, (an introduced predator). Our results show that predator-naïve prey species’ ability to recognise novel predators is inducible through experience.

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We thank the Arid Recovery staff and volunteers for their assistance with the study. Thanks to S. Ryall, C. Sives and J. Dunlop for their assistance with taxidermy and the anonymous reviewers for their critical review and valuable comments that helped improve the quality of our manuscript. We would also like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we worked and lived, the Kokatha people and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community.


This research was funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC-Linkage Grant (#LP130100173) to ML, KM and DTB) and Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment–ANZ Trustees Foundation (to LS and ML, #RG152215).

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Correspondence to Lisa A. Steindler.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All applicable international, national and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the South Australian Wildlife Ethics Committee, conducted under animal ethics APEC Approval Number 1/2014 Tackling Prey Naivety in Australia’s Threatened Mammals, and ACEC Approval Number 15/19A, in accordance with The Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (1997).

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Communicated by C. Soulsbury

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Steindler, L.A., Blumstein, D.T., West, R. et al. Exposure to a novel predator induces visual predator recognition by naïve prey. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 74, 102 (2020).

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  • Antipredator behaviour
  • Burrowing bettong
  • Learned recognition hypothesis
  • Ontogenetic experience
  • Visual discrimination