Itís a wild world out there, and survival of the fittest is the underlying principle of natural selection. To that end, the faster an animal learns where threats lie, the better its chances of survival. Now, ecologist Dr. Maud Ferrari has conducted research to find out just how quickly animals learn what predators pose the largest threats to their lives. While researchers have investigated how animals learn to recognize predators, Ferrari has focused her study on quantifying how predator avoidance arises and how accurate it can be. Specifically, she is interested in how fast recognition develops, how animals interpret conflicting information and how prey adjust their responses to predators over time.
Using fish and frogs as model specimens, Ferrari has discovered that prey learn to recognize the danger level of any predator during their first encounter, either using the concentration of chemicals released from injured or dead prey, or through social learning, by observing the intensity of antipredator responses displayed by other prey individuals. Ferrari also demonstrated that prey animals adjust the intensity of their response depending on the time of day that a particular predator is most threatening. Finally, she showed that prey generalize characteristics of their predators to learn which other animals present a similar threat. For instance, if a particular predator has sharp claws, prey learn to recognize claws in other animals they encounter for the first time, thereby developing broad responses that increase their chances of survival. This last finding, in particular, has radically changed the way ecologists understand predator recognition.
Ferrariís research has helped to advance our basic understanding of the way animals behave and respond to natural changes in their environment, but it also has important implications for conservation biology and invasive species ecology. Factors like climate change and various human activities have changed ecosystems. Species are then forced to adapt to their altered habitat or have to relocate to find more suitable homes, more food or mates. This means they will be facing new competitors and new predators. For conservation efforts and the successful reintroduction of species to a new habitat, Ferrariís research will provide valuable insight into the abilities of species to thrive in a new environment.