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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Rodents in open space adjust their behavioral response to the different risk levels during barn-owl attack

Shahaf Edut and David Eilam*

Author affiliations

Department of Zoology, Tel-Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 69 978, Israel

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Citation and License

BMC Ecology 2003, 3:10  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-3-10

Published: 13 November 2003

Abstract

Background

Previous studies have revealed that the response of prey species to predatory risk comprised either freezing (when the prey remained immobile), or fleeing (when it ran frantically in order to remove itself from the vicinity of the predator). Other studies, however, have suggested that the prey will adjust its behavior to risk level. The present study was designed to follow the attacks of a barn owl (Tyto alba) on common spiny mice (Acomys cahirinus) and social voles (Microtus socialis guntherei), in order to reveal the correspondence between the behavior of the owl, the risk level at each phase of the owl's attack, and the defensive behavior of the rodents.

Results

Spiny mice dramatically increased the traveled distance upon the appearance of the owl, and kept moving during its attack while taking long trajectories of locomotion. Defensive response in voles dichotomized: in some voles traveled distance dropped when the owl appeared, reaching zero during its attack. In other voles, traveled distance dramatically increased once the owl appeared and further increased under its attack. These defensive responses developed by gradual tuning of normal locomotor behavior in accordance with the level of risk.

Conclusions

The phenotypic difference in defensive behavior between voles and spiny mice probably stems from their different habitats and motor capacities. Agility and running capacity, together with a relatively sheltered natural habitat, make fleeing the most appropriate response for spiny mice during owl attack. Clumsiness and relatively limited motor capacities, together with an open natural habitat, account for the dichotomy to freezing or fleeing in voles. Thus, the apparent species-specific anti-predator response in spiny mice and voles is based on species-specific normal locomotor behavior, which depends on the species-specific ecology and motor capacity, and behaviors like defensive attack or escape jump that are specific to life threat. The latter behaviors are brief, and irregularly inlaid in the ongoing locomotor behavior. Finally, our results show that in both voles and spiny mice there is a gradual transition from normal to defensive behavior in accordance with the increase in risk level.