Individual variation in foraging behavior reveals a trade-off between flexibility and performance of a top predator

Lauren M. Pintor, Katie E. McGhee, Daniel P. Roche, Alison M. Bell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is increasing evidence that behavioral flexibility is associated with the ability to adaptively respond to environmental change. Flexibility can be advantageous in some contexts such as exploiting novel resources, but it may come at a cost of accuracy or performance in ecologically relevant tasks, such as foraging. Such trade-offs may, in part, explain why individuals within a species are not equally flexible. Here, we conducted a reversal learning task and predation experiment on a top fish predator, the Northern pike (Esox lucius), to examine individual variation in flexibility and test the hypothesis that an individual’s behavioral flexibility is negatively related with its foraging performance. Pikes were trained to receive a food reward from either a red or blue cup and then the color of the rewarded cup was reversed. We found that pike improved over time in how quickly they oriented to the rewarded cup, but there was a bias toward the color red. Moreover, there was substantial variation among individuals in their ability to overcome this red bias and switch from an unrewarded red cup to the rewarded blue cup, which we interpret as consistent variation among individuals in behavioral flexibility. Furthermore, individual differences in behavioral flexibility were negatively associated with foraging performance on ecologically relevant stickleback prey. Our data indicate that individuals cannot be both behaviorally flexible and efficient predators, suggesting a trade-off between these two traits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1711-1722
Number of pages12
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014


  • Color association/ discrimination
  • Color bias
  • Esox lucius
  • Gasterosteus aculeatus
  • Predator-prey
  • Reversal learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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