Week 12 - Nov. 18th
A Model Based Approach
to Feeding Beavior(Discussion Question Day)

MOODLE: Post and comment on primary research papers that test hypotheses generated by optimal foraging theory. Evaluate whether the chosen papes are "a complete waste of time" as claimed by Pierce and Ollalson.

Answer 2 of the following 4 questions. (download handout)
Try to use specific examples and comments from these opinion papers.
Bring your answers to class and be prepared to discuss and amend your answers.

1) In your opinion, which paper contributes to scientific progress? Defend your opinion with examples (quotes or summarized points) from each paper.

2) The principle of adaptation maintains that the process of natural selection has shaped the behaviors we observe in animals.  Piece and Ollason repeatedly state that this assumption should not be applied to feeding behavior. Even Stearns and Schmid-Hemple acquiesce that "optimal strategies may not occur in nature".  How then can they defend the field of optimal foraging theory? Identify 2-3 concrete objections to "optimality" and rebuttals to these objections that support the continued study of OFT..

3) What is a model? How should models be used in science? Should they be used to study foraging behavior?

4) Identify 3 points on which Stearns and Schmid-Hemple actually agree with Piece and Ollason.

Essential Animal Behavior ch.6

Pierce & Olalson (1987) Eight Reasons Why optimal Foraging Theory is a Complete Waste of Time. Oikos 49:111-118.

Stearns & Schmid-Hempl (1987) Evolutionary Insights Should Not Be Wasted. Oikos 49:118-125..


These papers use mathematical models from game theory, and also borrow heavily from the field of mathematical economics. Today, models are taken for granted in biology but they are a relatively recent addition to the study of animal behavior. The concept of an "Evolutionarily Stable Strategy" was introduced in 1973 (Smith and Price, 1973) and has been very valuable since for analyzing situations in which the fitness consequences of a particular action depend on the activities of other individuals in the population. Although models are admittedly simplifications, they allow us to formulate testable hypotheses to quantify important varialbes in the process of natural selection.

What do these four things have in common?


Smith, J.M. and Price, G.R. (1973) The Logic of Animal Conflict. Nature 246:15-18.

Dawkins, "Nice Guys Finish Last" in The Selfish Gene Chp. 12
This is long but it is an easy read and a classic citation.

Axelrod, R. and Hamilton, W.D. (1981) The Evolution of cooperation. Science 211:1390-1396.


Week 12 - Nov. 20th
Neural Basis of Decision Making

Following from Tuesday, here are some more recent papers that employ game theory to understand animal behavior read one of them:

Sinervo et al (2006) Self-recognition, color signals, and cycles of greenbeard mutualism and altruism PNAS 103:7372-7377.
Queller et al (2003) Single-Gene Greenbeard Effects in the Social Amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. Science 299:105-106
Keller et al., (1998) Selfishgene: a greenbeard in the red fire ant. Nature:394:573-575.

We talk about "the games animals play" but how do they play them? While we are still a long way away from understanding how the brain makes complex decisions, neural recording from primates during cognitive tasks has offered ignificant insight to this problem. Again, borrowing from game theory and mathematical economics, researchers are showing that neural circuits, or individual neurons are playing these games. This very new field is called "Neuroeconomics" and attracts interest from many researchers outside of biology, such as sociology, political science, and of course economics.

Lee, D. (2008) Game theory and neural basis of social decision making. Nature Neuroscience. 11:404-410.

and for a different perspective.
Neuroeconomics: Do economists need brains? 2008 Economist

If you want to try the primary literature instead of a review, I suggset:
Sugrue, L.P., Corrado, G.S., and Newsome, W.T. (2005) Chooseing the Greater of Two Goods: Neural Currencies for Valuation and Decision Making. Nat Rev Neurosci 6:363-375.
Roesch M.R. and Olson, C.R. (2004) Neuronal Activity Related to Reward Value and Motivation in Primate Frontal Cortex. Science 304:307-310.