Food choices evolve through information overload

Mar 23, 2009

Ever been so overwhelmed by a huge restaurant menu that you end up choosing an old favourite instead of trying something new?

Psychologists have long since thought that leads to people repeatedly choosing what they know. Now, new research has shown that the same concept applies equally to hundreds of too.

Researchers from the University of Leeds have used computer modelling to examine the evolution of specialisation, casting light on why some animal species have evolved to eat one particular type of food. For example some aphids choose to eat garden roses, but not other plants which would offer similar nutritional values.

"This is a major leap forward in our understanding of the way in which animals interact with their environment," says lead researcher Dr Colin Tosh from the University's Faculty of Biological Sciences. "Our computer models show the way in which neural networks operate in different environments. They have made it possible for us to see how different species make decisions, based on what's happening - or in this case, which foods are available - around them."

Despite the prevalence of specialisation in the animal kingdom, very little is known about why it occurs. The work conducted at Leeds has provided strong evidence in support of the 'neural limitations' hypothesis put forward by academics in the 1990s. This hypothesis, derived from , is based on the concept of information overload.

"There are several hypotheses to explain specialisation: one suggests that animals adapt to eat certain foods and this prevents them from eating other types of food," says Dr Tosh.

"For example, cows have evolved flat teeth which allow them to chew grass but they are unable to efficiently process meat. However, the problem with these hypotheses is that they don't apply across the board. Some species - such as many plant eating insects - have evolved to specialise even though there are many other available foods they could eat perfectly well."

This is the first study to provide a realistic representation of neural information processing in animals and how these interact with their environment. The research team believe that it could also have major implications for predicting the effects of environmental change.

"A good example of a struggling specialist is the giant panda, which relies on high mountain bamboo," says Dr Tosh. "In understanding how neural processes work, we may be able to gain an insight into how future environmental conditions - such as the dying out of particular types of plants - may affect a range of different animal species that utilise them for food."

Source: University of Leeds (news : web)

Explore further: Comparing the effects of stalking versus cyberstalking on victims

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How plants learned to respond to changing environments

Jul 12, 2007

A team of John Innes centre scientists lead by Professor Nick Harberd have discovered how plants evolved the ability to adapt to changes in climate and environment. Plants adapt their growth, including key steps in their ...

Researchers shed light on diet of early human ancestors

May 02, 2007

Eight years ago, the field of anthropology was rocked by isotopic evidence that suggested one-third of the diet of early human ancestors consisted of grasses and sedges, or the tissue of animals that ate such ...

Recommended for you

Testosterone helps to bind antidepressants in the brain

1 hour ago

Female sex hormones have a strong effect on the psyche. This has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies and by phenomena such as the "baby blues", a bout of low mood following childbirth, or recurrent mood swings that ...

Mothers don't speak so clearly to their babies

Jan 23, 2015

People have a distinctive way of talking to babies and small children: We speak more slowly, using a sing-song voice, and tend to use cutesy words like "tummy". While we might be inclined to think that we ...

Explainer: What is sexual fluidity?

Jan 23, 2015

Sexual preferences are not set in stone and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation the individual is in. This has been described as sexual fluidity. For example, if someone identifies as heterosexual but th ...

Lucky charms: When are superstitions used most?

Jan 23, 2015

It might be a lucky pair of socks, or a piece of jewelry; whatever the item, many people turn to a superstition or lucky charm to help achieve a goal. For instance, you used a specific avatar to win a game and now you see ...

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.