Narrator: Listen to part of a lecture in a biology class.
Professor: OK, let’s continue our discussion about animal behavior by talking about decisions that animals face, complex ones. Animals, even insects, carry out what look like very complex decision-making processes. The question is: how? I mean, no one really thinks that, say, a bee goes through weighing the pros and cons of pollinating this flower or thatflower. But then, how do animals solve complex questions, questions thatseem to require decision making?
The answer we propose, of course, is that their behavior is largely amatter of natural selection. As an example, let’s look at foraging behavior among beavers. Beavers eat plants, mostly trees, and they also use trees and tree branches to construct their homes in streams and lakes. So when they do forage for food and for shelter materials, theyhave to leave their homes and go up on land, where their main predators are. So there are a number of choices that have to be made of foraging.
So, for example, uh, they need to decide what kind of tree they should cut down. Some trees have higher nutritional values than others, and some are better for building material, and some are good for both, um, aspen trees. Beavers peel off the bark to eat and they also use the branches for building their shelters. So aspens do double duty. But ash trees, beavers use ash trees only for construction.
Another decision is when to forage for food, should they go out during the day time when it’s hotter outside and they have to expend more energy? Or at night when the weather is cooler but predators are more active?
OK, but there are two more important issues, really the most central, the most, uh, important, OK? First, let’s say a beaver could get the same amount of wood from a single large tree when it has lots of branches as itcould get from three small trees. Which should it choose? If it chooses onelarge tree, it’ll have to carry that large piece of wood back home, and lugging a big piece of wood forty or fifty yards is hard work, takes a lot of energy. Of course, it’ll have to only make one trip to get the wood back to the water.
On the other hand, if it goes for three small trees instead, it’ll take less energy per tree to get the wood back home, but it’ll have to make three trips back and forth for these three trees. And presumably, the more often it wanders for home, the more it’s likely to be exposed to predators. So which is better: a single large tree or three small trees?
Another critical issue, and it’s related to the first, to the size issue, is how far from the water should it go to get trees? Should it be willing to travel a greater distance for a large tree since it’ll get so much wood from it? Beavers certainly go farther from the water to an Aspen tree than for an Ash tree. That reflects their relative values, but what about size? Will ittravel farther for a larger tree than it will for a smaller tree?
Now, I would’ve thought the bigger the tree, the farther the beaver would be willing to travel for it. That’ll make sense, right? If you’re going to travel far, make the trip worth it by bringing back the most wood possible. But actually, the opposite is true! Beavers will cut down only large trees that are close to the water. They’ll travel far only to cut down certain small trees that they can cut down quickly and drag back home quickly.
Generally, the farther they go from the water, the smaller the tree they’ll cut down. They’re willing to make more trips to haul back less wood, which carries a greater risk of being exposed to predators. So, it looks as though beavers are less interested in minimizing their exposure to predators, and more interested in saving energy when foraging for wood, which may also explain why beavers forage primarily during the evenings.