In a recent paper published in Behavioral Ecology (Chapman et al. 2010: http://beheco.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/arq003v1) we investigated the role of early experience in the development of risk-taking behaviour in animals. Variation in individual boldness has been demonstrated in an astounding range of animals, from birds to fish to ants, and so understanding what drives this variation is an important question in biology. We reasoned that animals that experience unpredictable food resources in early life will learn to partake in more risky behaviour than those that have a predictable food supply, due to the potential costs involved in not acquiring food. We tested our idea using guppies, a species of tropical fish, by rearing groups of fish under either predictable or unpredictable feeding conditions. Fish that had a predictable upbringing were fed a standard amount of food at a set time of day, whilst fish that were fed on an unpredictable schedule were fed at random times of day. As we expected, fish that experienced unpredictability in early life were bolder than those experiencing a predictable food supply, spending more time exploring new environments and leaving the safety of a shoal for longer periods. Our research highlights the powerful influence early experience can play in animal behaviour, and suggests that uncertain, fluctuating environments produce behaviourally bold individuals.
My collaborators in this project:
Lesley Morrell http://www.personal.leeds.ac.uk/~bgyljm/