Subhabitat selection by foraging threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus): previous experience and social conformity

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Any mechanism that allows animals to increase their foraging efficiency is likely to be selected for, including the ability to learn to recognise and subsequently discriminate between habitat types based on their profitability. In a series of laboratory studies, we manipulated prey densities across two different experimental subhabitats and demonstrated that threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) can develop foraging preferences for subhabitats that have previously yielded prey. Fish were not recalling the spatial location of prey patches; rather, they were discriminating between subhabitats based on foraging experience there and allocating foraging effort accordingly. Foraging preferences took around 14 days to develop, and once established, they persisted independently of experimental prey density, suggesting that fish were using experience rather than real-time sampling to select foraging grounds. When we presented focal fish with social information cues, we found that they preferentially used local enhancement and current public information cues when they conflicted with previous experience, but that they did not use prior public information. This suggests that in the presence of conspecifics, individuals prioritise social conformity over the use of private information. We discuss our results in the context of optimal foraging and the trade-offs associated with balancing conflicting private and social information.

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