Hungry sharks take strange walks to find food
28 February 2008
Sharks and other marine animals find food using a similar search pattern to the way people may shop, according to one of the largest analyses of foraging behaviour attempted so far - and the first such analysis of marine predators.
The results of the international study, published in the journal Nature today, shows that the animals' behaviour seems to have evolved as a general 'rule' to search for sparsely distributed prey in the vast expanse of the ocean. This rule involves a special pattern of random movement known as a Levy Walk, where the predators use a series of small motions interspersed with large jumps to new foraging locations. This increases the chance of finding food, however widely scattered it might be.
Dr David Sims from the Marine Biological Association and the University of Plymouth, who led the research, said, "Systematic searching is not the most efficient strategy if you're looking for sparse items. If you go to the supermarket to buy eggs you look for them in one place, and if you don't find them there you choose another location to look in. You probably won't start at one end of the supermarket and search every aisle. Predators increase energy gain by adopting the Levy Walk, so they can travel further to find food."
Tagging a basking shark
The researchers analysed the dive data from sophisticated electronic tags attached to a diverse range of marine predators, such as sharks, tuna, cod, sea turtles and penguins, in various locations around the world. They compared this data to the distribution patterns of their prey and found similarities, suggesting that the predators have evolved this search rule to get the best possible results from their foraging expeditions.
Dr Sims said, "We developed a computer model from the foraging data, and this confirmed that the observed patterns were indeed optimal for naturally dynamic prey fields. The search rule seems to be a general solution for success in complex and changeable environments."
Similar movement patterns appear to be present in other species' behaviour, including human travel dynamics, hinting that the patterns discovered by the team may be universal. If so, they could prove useful for programming robots to be more successful when collecting samples from inhospitable places such as active volcanoes, the deep sea or on other planets. Understanding the patterns could also shed new light on how early humans explored and colonised the continents.
The research involved an international collaboration of behavioural ecologists, mathematicians and engineers from the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand. It was funded principally by the Natural Environment Research Council, Defra, the Royal Society and the Fisheries Society of the British Isles.
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
1. 'Scaling laws of marine predator search behaviour' is published in Nature on 28 February 2008.
2. The authors of the paper are:
David W. Sims (1,2), Emily J. Southall (1), Nicolas E. Humphries (1), Graeme C. Hays (3), Corey J.A. Bradshaw (4), Jonathan W. Pitchford (5), Alex James (5,6), Mohammed Z. Ahmed (7), Andrew S. Brierley (8), Mark A. Hindell (9), David Morritt (10), Michael K. Musyl (11), David Righton (12), Emily L.C. Shepard (3), Victoria J. Wearmouth (1), Rory P. Wilson (3), Matthew J. Witt (13), Julian D. Metcalfe (12)
(1) Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, Plymouth PL1 2PB, UK;
(2) Marine Biology & Ecology Research Centre, School of Biological Sciences, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, UK;
(3) Department of Biological Sciences, Institute of Environmental Sustainability, Swansea University, Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP, UK;
(4) School for Environmental Research, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Northern Territory 0909, Australia;
(5) Department of Biology and York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis, University of York, York YO10 5YW, UK;
(6) Department of Mathematics & Statistics, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand;
(7) School of Computing, Communications & Electronics, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, UK;
(8) Gatty Marine Laboratory, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, Fife KY16 8LB, UK;
(9) School of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 05, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia;
(10) School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham TW20 0EX, UK;
(11) Joint Institute for Marine & Atmospheric Research, Pelagic Fisheries Research Programme, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Kewalo Research Facility/NOAA Fisheries, 1125-B Ala Mona Boulevard, Honolulu HI 96814, USA;
(12) Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science, Lowestoft Laboratory, Pakefield Road, Lowestoft NR33 0HT, UK;
(13) Centre for Ecology & Conservation, University of Exeter in Cornwall, Tremough TR10 9EZ, UK
3. This research was facilitated through the European Tracking of Predators in the Atlantic (EUTOPIA) programme in the European Census of Marine Life (EuroCoML).
Press release: 10/08
Recent press news
- Billion-year-old water could hold clues to life on Earth and Mars
- New Director of Science for NERC
- Plants use underground networks to warn of enemy attack
- BIOMASS mission given go ahead to launch in 2020
- Dr Katharine Giles
- New Director for the British Antarctic Survey
- Plans to strengthen UK-Indian collaboration in Earth sciences and environmental research
- CryoSat-2 mission reveals major Arctic sea-ice loss
- UK and USA collaborate in airborne climate science projects
- New capital investments for NERC