Nutrition Research Reviews

Research Article

Self-organization of foraging behaviour: From simplicity to complexity without goals

Frederick D Provenzaa1, Juan J Villalbaa1, Carl D Cheneya2 and Scott J Wernera1

a1 Department of Rangeland Resources, Utah State Univ., Logan, Utah, U.S.A. 84322–5230

a2 Department of Psychology, Utah State Univ., Logan, Utah, U.S.A. 84322–2810


A herbivore faces challenges while foraging—ongoing changes in its physiological condition along with variation in the nutrient and toxin concentrations of foods, spatially and temporally—that make selecting a nutritious diet a vital affair. Foraging behaviours arise from simple rules that operate across levels of resolution from cells and organs to individuals and their interactions with social and physical environments. At all these levels, behaviour is a function of its consequences: a behaviour operating on the environment to induce changes is itself changed by those events. Thus, behaviour emerges from its own functioning—behaviour self-organizes-not from that of its surroundings. This ostensible autonomy notwith-standing, no self-organizing system (cell, organ, or individual) is independent of its environs because existence consists of an ongoing exchange of energy and matter. According to this view, the notion of cause and effect is replaced with functional relationships between behaviours and environmental consequences. Changes in physical environments alter the distribution, abundance, nutritional, and toxicological characteristics of plants, which affect food preference. Social interactions early in life influence behaviour in various ways: animals prefer familiar foods and environments, and they prefer to be with companions. Animals in unfamiliar environments often walk farther, ingest less food, and suffer more from malnutrition and toxicity than animals in familiar environments. An individual's food preferences—and its ability to discriminate familiar from novel foods—arise from the functional integration of sensory (smell, taste, texture) and postingestive (effects of nutrients and toxins on chemo-, osmo-, and mechano-receptors) effects. The ability to discriminate among foods is critical for survival: all problems with poisonous plants are due to an inability to discriminate or a lack of alternatives. Animals eat a variety of foods as a result of nearing or exceeding tolerance limits for sensory and postingestive effects unique to each food. After eating any food too frequently or excessively, the likelihood increases that animals will eat alternative foods owing to exceeding sensory-, nutrient-, and toxin-specific tolerance limits. Cyclic patterns of intake of a variety of foods reflect seemingly chaotic interactions among flavours, nutrients, and toxins interacting along continua.