Born to run? Quantifying the balance of prior bias and new information in prey escape decisions

Nicholas M. Sutton, James P. O’dwyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animal behaviors can often be challenging to model and predict, though optimality theory has improved our ability to do so. While many qualitative predictions of behavior exist, accurate quantitative models, tested by empirical data, are often lacking. This is likely due to variation in biases across individuals and variation in the way new information is gathered and used. We propose a modeling framework based on a novel interpretation of Bayes’s theorem to integrate optimization of energetic constraints with both prior biases and specific sources of new information gathered by individuals. We present methods for inferring distributions of prior biases within populations rather than assuming known priors, as is common in Bayesian approaches to modeling behavior, and for evaluating the goodness of fit of overall model descriptions. We apply this framework to predict optimal escape during predator-prey encounters, based on prior biases and variation in what information prey use. Using this approach, we collected and analyzed data characterizing white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) escape behavior in response to human approaches. We found that distance to predator alone was not sufficient to predict deer flight response and show that the inclusion of additional information is necessary. We also compared differences in the inferred distributions of prior biases across different populations and discuss the possible role of human activity in influencing these distributions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-331
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018


  • Animal behavior
  • Antipredator behavior
  • Decision-making
  • Modeling
  • Optimal escape theory
  • Predator-prey interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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