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Optimal Foraging Theory & Its Impact on Animal Behavior

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  • 0:00 Resources for Survival
  • 0:51 The Optimal Foraging Theory
  • 1:50 Examples of the Theory
  • 2:46 Changing Conditions
  • 3:34 Humanity
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Do you like to waste food or money? Do you think it's funny to pointlessly exert energy on things that have absolutely no utility? In that case, you're doomed! So says the optimal foraging theory.

Resources for Survival

Every species requires resources to survive. Plants get their resources, namely nutrients like nitrogen and water, from the surrounding soil. Additionally, they get the light necessary to complete photosynthesis from the sun. Animals, on the other hand, have to put a bit more effort into things. Of course, animals have the great advantage of being mobile.

Still, that mobility can be a double-edged sword, because it requires animals to use extra resources. Think about it like this - do you have a bigger appetite after sitting on the sofa all day, or after running around playing soccer or football? Trying to find the balance between looking for resources and not using up all those resources is an example of the optimal foraging theory.

The Optimal Foraging Theory

At its core, the basic belief of the optimal foraging theory is that you shouldn't consume more than you can take in. Better yet, you should always try to find ways to more effectively gather resources without having to consume additional resources. Imagine the optimal foraging theory like a car. If you stop putting gasoline in the car, it eventually stops and won't go on any further. For animals, that means that they are incapacitated, and unless someone brings them food, they will die.

But you wouldn't let your car run out of gas, would you? In fact, you probably know exactly where the nearest gas stations are to your house. When your car is low on gas and you're home, you go to one of those gas stations rather than one ten miles away. The optimal foraging theory states that you will go to those gas stations near your house when you are low on gas, rather than wasting a bunch of time going to a gas station across town just for the fun of it.

Examples of the Theory

Before you think that the optimal foraging theory somehow requires extra work, let's slow down and think about two examples of animals that aren't exactly known for being perpetually hardworking. The first is the lion. Sure, they are the baddest predators on the savanna, but if you've ever watched any documentaries on them, they are actually pretty inactive. They sleep up to 20 hours a day, and the general agreement is that the male lions protect the community while the female lions do all the hunting.

Even the female lions only really are active when they have a high likelihood of gaining resources in the form of a tasty zebra. We don't see lions chasing cheetahs for the sheer joy of it, as it would be a waste of resources! Likewise, we don't really see male lions doing anything except defending the pride, because that would be a waste of resources.

Changing Conditions

Sure, lions have the fierceness to be that lazy most of the time. After all, only a truly crazy hyena would attack a bunch of lions. But what about a squirrel? Squirrels are actually a perfect example of how animals adjust to changing conditions. During the late summer and fall, squirrels are horribly busy. In fact, it would seem that they are ignoring the optimal foraging theory due to the sheer amount of energy that they are using.

However, squirrels are merely preparing for what they know is coming. During the winter, squirrels are rarely seen. Instead, they are enjoying the large caches of mixed nuts and acorns that they have stashed away. In short, they expend next to no resources during this time but have plenty of resources at their disposal.

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