August 24, 2012

Simulations Help Scientists Understand Predator, Prey Relationship

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

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Simulations have helped scientists answer some lingering questions regarding the evolution of fish group formation.

Researchers reported in the journal Science that they have found evidence that collective motion in animal groups like schools of fish can evolve as a finely tuned defense against attack from predators.

Iain Couzin, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton who studies collective animal behavior, said that this dynamic has been suggested by other research, but there are many variables that drive group movement, making it difficult to point to a direct link to self-defense.

The team developed an evolvable simulation of small prey that allowed them to observe how group formation and movement alone protect against predatory attack.

They projected the simulated prey onto one side of a tank containing a bluegill sunfish. The prey interacted spontaneously with one another based on encoded behavior traits.

The team found that the bluegills were most likely to avoid attacking simulated prey that had formed coordinated and mobile groups.

The findings suggest that group formation can dissuade a predator, even if the prey are completely unaware of the danger.

The simulated prey mirrors those of many animal groups, wherein individuals follow cues from their near-neighbors to coordinate movements.

"This sort of hybrid virtual approach has given us a way of tapping into these long-lasting questions that have really evaded standard analysis for decades," Couzin said in a press release.