Researchers improve on an old model for studying predator search patterns

Jul 16, 2012 by Donna Hesterman

(Phys.org) -- The inspiration for the next Google or search-and-rescue drone may spring from a seemingly unlikely source: Watching how animals sniff out food, according to new University of Florida research.

Innovators in everything from robotics to Internet search engines study patterns that animal predators walk while searching for prey. But mathematical models that have been used in the past to study these patterns are in need of a little revamping, the UF study finds — because in the animal kingdom, scent plays a major roll in tracking prey.

The study appears in the July 10 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Imagine trying to find a bakery in a foreign city without a map,” said Andrew Hein, a researcher in UF’s biology department. “You’re in sort of a general search mode until you catch of whiff of fresh bread. Then you start to look more carefully for visual cues like a store front or someone else carrying a baguette.”

The strategy saves predators time and energy by helping them cut to the chase, but the models currently used to represent on the hunt aren’t equipped with olfactory senses. Hein worked with colleague Scott McKinley, a researcher in the mathematics department at UF, to endow two widely used computer models with a simulated sense of smell.

“In a natural environment, smell can be a very vague, directionless signal for where a target, like prey or a mate, can be found,” Hein said. “But even when an animal smells nothing, that signal is telling him something: Keep moving.”

In the study, Hein and McKinley pit the olfactory-equipped computer models against two of the original models in a series of virtual hunts. The models with smelling power won hands down. They were far more efficient and reliable than their non-sniffing counterparts, the study found.

The improvement also made the behave more like what biologists have observed in nature, Hein said.

“We know that albatrosses alter their flight pattern when they encounter scent,” he said. “And frigatebirds find the eddies where they hunt at least in part, by smell.”

McKinley said their work addresses a gap in the existing body of literature on modeling animal search patterns. But Massimo Vergassola, a physicist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said the study is important because it provides an abstraction of general principles that can be useful for scientists modeling bio-inspired search strategies in a variety of applications.

People are using this sort of research to inform a range of exploration, Vergassola said, from insect mating and reproduction control to “sniffer robots” that could be deployed to detect chemical leaks.

Explore further: Scientists name the deepest cave-dwelling centipede after Hades—the Greek god of the underworld

Related Stories

New tool enhances view of muscles

Jan 23, 2012

Simon Fraser University associate professor James Wakeling is adding to the arsenal of increasingly sophisticated medical imaging tools with a new signal-processing method for viewing muscle activation details that have never ...

Recommended for you

Key element of human language discovered in bird babble

20 hours ago

Stringing together meaningless sounds to create meaningful signals was previously thought to be the preserve of humans alone, but a new study has revealed that babbler birds are also able to communicate in ...

3-D scans of mating fruit flies uncovers female biology

Jun 29, 2015

Following in the footsteps of Leonardo Da Vinci's 1493 anatomical sketch of a man and woman, "The Copulation," Cornell researchers used cutting-edge X-ray technology to noninvasively image fruit flies during ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.