The decision to fight or flee - insights into underlying mechanism in crickets.
Ritualized fighting between conspecifics is an inherently dangerous behavioral strategy, optimized to secure limited resources at minimal cost and risk. To be adaptive, potential rewards, and costs of aggression must be assessed to decide when it would be more opportune to fight or flee. We summarize insights into the proximate mechanisms underlying this decision-making process in field crickets. As in other animals, cricket aggression is enhanced dramatically by motor activity, winning, and the possession of resources. Pharmacological manipulations provide evidence that these cases of experience dependent enhancement of aggression are each mediated by octopamine, the invertebrate counterpart to adrenaline/noradrenaline. The data suggest that both physical exertion and rewarding aspects of experiences can activate the octopaminergic system, which increases the propensity to fight. Octopamine thus represents the motivational component of aggression in insects. For the decision to flee, animals are thought to assess information from agonistic signals exchanged during fighting. Cricket fights conform to the cumulative assessment model, in that they persist in fighting until the sum of their opponent's actions accumulates to some threshold at which they withdraw. We discuss evidence that serotonin, nitric oxide, and some neuropeptides may promote an insect's tendency to flee. We propose that the decision to fight or flee in crickets is controlled simply by relative behavioral thresholds. Rewarding experiences increase the propensity to fight to a level determined by the modulatory action of octopamine. The animal will then flee only when the accumulated sum of the opponent's actions surpasses this level; serotonin and nitric oxide may be involved in this process. This concept is in line with the roles proposed for noradrenaline, serotonin, and nitric oxide in mammals and suggests that basic mechanisms of aggressive modulation may be conserved in phylogeny.