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Unit information: Staying Alive: The Behaviour, Psychology and Ecology of Predator-Prey Interactions in 2020/21

Unit name Staying Alive: The Behaviour, Psychology and Ecology of Predator-Prey Interactions
Unit code BIOL30010
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Dr. Christos Ioannou
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences


Predator-prey interactions are a major force in evolution, shaping morphology, physiology and behaviour; they also drive many population processes. This is because, for prey, predation is a major source of mortality and, for predators, it provides the major source of energy and nutrients. A complete understanding of predator-prey interactions is a fundamentally multidisciplinary enterprise, not only linking evolution and ecology but also with inputs from animal behaviour and psychology, because seeking prey and avoiding attack require an understanding of perception and decision-making. In this unit, we survey this exciting and growing field from these multiple perspectives, extending principles covered in second year behaviour and behavioural ecology units to understand issues as diverse as habitat selection, search behaviour, escape, armour, colouration (camouflage, warning coloration, mimicry), and social behaviour from group hunting to collective defence. Throughout the unit we particularly emphasise the need to understand predator traits as well as the anti-predator traits in prey, the ecological impacts of predator-prey interactions, and how technology has been developed and used to study predator-prey interactions.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of this unit, students should be able to:

  1. Explain the general theoretical principles underlying successful attack and defence.
  2. Explain how the strategies involved in attack and defence can have consequences at larger (ecological and evolutionary) scales.
  3. Explain why and how perception and cognition can shape the evolution of form and behaviour.
  4. Illustrate how different levels of analysis (mechanism, development, function, evolution) can be integrated to explain behaviour and morphology.
  5. Evaluate the strength of evidence presented in scientific papers relevant to the theories covered in the unit.
  6. Apply their knowledge and understanding (of principles 1 to 4 above), supported by appropriate examples from the scientific literature, to propose hypotheses to explain novel scenarios.
  7. Apply their knowledge of relevant scientific literature to propose tests for the hypotheses proposed in 6, above.

Teaching details

Lectures, directed reading, research and/or problem-solving activities; and independent study.

Assessment Details

Summative written assessment, with one essay question to be selected from a choice of two.

Reading and References

Essential Reading:

This is a fast-moving field, taught mainly from the primary literature, and so many of the key papers will change year-on-year. However, an excellent core text on the general principles is Ruxton GD, Allen WL, Sherratt TN, Speed MP (2018) Avoiding Attack, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Recommended Reading:

Cuthill IC, Allen WL, Arbuckle K, Caspers B, Chaplin G, Hauber ME, Hill GE, Jablonski NG, Jiggins CD, Kelber A, Mappes J, Marshall J, Merrill R, Osorio D, Prum R, Roberts NW, Roulin A, Rowland HM, Sherratt TN, Skelhorn J, Speed MP, Stevens M, Stoddard MC, Stuart-Fox D, Talas L, Tibbetts E, Caro T (2017) The biology of color. Science 357:eaan0221

Stevens M, Merilaita S (2011) Animal Camouflage: Mechanisms and Function. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

Excellent examples of the sort of experimental approaches that can be used are:

Ioannou CC, Guttal V, Couzin ID (2012) Predatory fish select for coordinated collective motion in virtual prey. Science 337:1212-1215

Ioannou, CC, Ramnarine, IW & Torney, CJ, 2017, ‘High-predation habitats affect the social dynamics of collective exploration in a shoaling fish’. Science Advances 3, e1602682.

Cuthill IC, Sanghera NS, Penacchio O, Lovell PG, Ruxton GD, Harris JM (2016) Optimizing countershading camouflage: a field experiment. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 113:13093-13097

Vinther J, Nicholls R, Lautenschlager S, Pittmand M, Kayee TG, Rayfield E, Mayr G, Cuthill IC (2016) 3D camouflage in an ornithischian dinosaur. Curr Biol 26:2456-2462

Further Reading:

As an accessible general account of the wider roles of mimicry and deception in nature:

Stevens M (2016) Cheats and Deceits. Oxford University Press, Oxford