The Power of Learning for Predator-Prey Relationships

In Season 1, Episode 7 of Life, David Attenborough claims life in the wild is most intense between predator and prey. In order to survive, one must out smart the other. In this episode, we see three male cheetahs that hunt prey other cheetahs would not dare to go near. Why? Cheetahs typically do not hunt zebras, and instead focus on smaller prey [3]. Attenborough explains this is because adult zebras can be lethal. In this documentary, however, the three brothers have found a way to out wit and hunt a pack of zebras. We see two attempts at the kill. For the first attempt, all three cheetahs make a critical mistake: they each try to kill a different target, making it easy for the zebras to defend themselves and their young. This way of hunting was bound to lead to failure, and the cheetahs walk away with no dinner. However, the brothers regroup and try again. This time, having learned from their mistake, they work together, choosing one adult zebra to hunt.  The result? Success. The brothers come away with a kill.

In animal behavior, there is a key difference between innate behavior and learned behavior. Learned behavior is acquired through experience over time [4]. In the above example, we see the cheetahs developing learned behavior. Learning plays a key role in the development of animals and their subsequent adaptation, as it allows them to gain new techniques that enhance their survival [4]. Specifically, variance in the ability of individual animals to learn is related to fitness, an organism’s survival or reproductive success [1]. Fitness is extremely important in evolution because it is the foundation for natural selection and a main driver of adaptation [2]. Without variation in fitness, there can be no evolutionary change.

So, what does this mean for animals in the wild? There needs to be continuous learning and adaptation for predators and prey if they want to survive. If animals, like the cheetahs above, learn new ways to hunt, they will survive at higher rates and reproduce. The same will occur if the zebras learn new ways to escape the cheetahs group style of hunting. Unfortunately, failure to do either of these tasks results in poor survival for both the hunters and hunted.

by Emily Kaissi

Life, Season 1, Episode 7


  1. Cauchoix M & AS Chaine. 2016. How can we study the evolution of animal minds? Frontier Psychology. 7: 358
  2. Ramsey G. 2013. Can fitness differences be a cause of evolution? Philos Theor Biol. 5(1):e401
  3. Melin AD, Kline DW, Hiramatsu C & T Caro. 2016. Zebra stripes through the eyes of their predators, zebras, and humans. PLoS One. 11(6): e0151660.
  4. Thurfjell H, Ciuti S, & MS Boyce. 2017. Learning from the mistakes of others: How female elk (Cervus elaphus) adjust behaviour with age to avoid hunters. PLoS One. 12(6): e0178082.

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