The dynamic nature of antipredator behavior: prey fish integrate threat-sensitive antipredator responses within background levels of predation risk
Prey animals often have to face a dynamic tradeoff between the costs of antipredator behavior and the benefits of other fitness-related activities such as foraging and reproduction. According to the threat-sensitive predator avoidance hypothesis, prey animals should match the intensity of their antipredator behavior to the degree of immediate threat posed by the predator. Moreover, longer-term temporal variability in predation risk (over days to weeks) can shape the intensity of antipredator behavior. According to the risk allocation hypothesis, changing the background level of risk for several days is often enough to change the response intensity of the prey to a given stimulus. As the background level of risk increases, the response intensity of the prey decreases. In this study, we tested for possible interactions between immediate threat-sensitive responses to varying levels of current perceived risk and temporal variability in background risk experienced over the past 3 days. Juvenile convict cichlids were preexposed to either low or high frequencies of predation risk (using conspecific chemical alarm cues) for 3 days and were then tested for a response to one of five concentrations (100, 50, 25, 12.5%, or a distilled water control). According to the threat-sensitive predator avoidance hypothesis, we found greater intensity responses to greater concentrations of alarm cues. Moreover, in accordance with the risk allocation hypothesis, we found that cichlids previously exposed to the high background level of risk exhibited a lower overall intensity response to each alarm cue concentration than those exposed to the low background level of risk. It is interesting to note that we found that the background level of risk over the past 3 days influenced the threshold level of response to varying concentrations of alarm cues. Indeed, the minimum stimulus concentration that evoked a behavioral response was lower for fish exposed to high background levels of predation than those exposed to low background levels of predation. These results illustrate a remarkable interplay between immediate (current) risk and background risk in shaping the intensity of antipredator responses.