What We Do When We Think About Being Eaten

February 25, 2014

By Mary Seligy, Business Analyst, CSP

Recently, I came across “Behavioral decisions made under the risk of predation: a review and prospectus” in a list of articles that were trending on our journal website, nrcresearchpress.com .

As I later found out, “Behavioral decisions” -- published by Lima and Dill in the April 1990 issue of the Canadian Journal of Zoology -- was a landmark review and is the second-most cited ecology paper world-wide from the 1990s. But I read the article because I was intrigued by the idea that animals--be they protozoan or primate--make decisions, and can actually do so under threat to life and limb.

I mean, when one is faced with the prospect of (someone else’s) salivating jaws, what is there to think about? I had always assumed that this situation boiled down to pure reaction in the moment: put up your dukes or get out of Dodge. But as Lima and Dill point out, “growing evidence suggests that animals...have the ability to assess and behaviorally influence their risk of being preyed upon in ecological time (i.e., during their lifetime)”. In other words, they can size up a situation and behave tactically, before it ever comes to fight or flight.

The need for considered decision-making apparently arises from the simple fact that, while animals need to avoid being eaten, they still need to eat. Inaction is not an option. And on any given day, the parameters of the game can change: maybe that large and nutritious-looking berry patch in the meadow is worth going for, or maybe you’re just not hungry enough right now to risk exposure to that hawk you saw flying by. And so a calculation is made and actioned accordingly.

The question of how we humans behave under the threat of actual predation is arguably no longer relevant. Though people do occasionally get attacked by bears or bitten by snakes, it’s been a really long time since we, as a species, have had to worry about being eaten by giant carnivorous kangaroos, sabre-toothed tigers, and other predators that pursued our earlier, more snack-sized ancestors.

Still, the shadow of evolutionarily-programmed anxiety is long: though it may have been millennia since humans were last considered a reliable bet for lunch, when we undergo stress or pressure, we talk about being “consumed”, “eaten alive”, or “crunched”.

Organizations also use language reflective of the threat of predation. At CSP, we generally consider ourselves to be a smallish fish in the scholarly publishing pond, and everyone knows that small fish do have to concern themselves with being “snapped up” or swallowed whole by an ever-changing publishing environment. And though the proverbial wolf may not be at the door exactly, we are always aware that he may be out there.

In pondering all of this, I felt a glimmer of recognition as I read the section of “Behavioral Decisions...” that described some of the behavioral tactics used by various animals.

For example, schooling shiners swim in a kind of staggered formation, not always in the same direction. This enables them to keep a fresh eye on things. Other animals, like the killifish, seem to strive for a more compact, efficient group, because apparently, stragglers tend to get eaten. And something mammals--especially primates--tend to do, is form tightly bonded, vigilant groups. This behavior only works if each member takes their turn being on the lookout, so that the group as a whole can carry on doing what it needs to stay strong and healthy.

As an organization, we too understand that to survive and thrive, we must take risks, but they have to be calculated risks. The kind you can take when you plan well enough ahead, before it comes to fight or flight. And so we endeavour to keep a fresh eye out, looking for clever ways to solve problems and find innovative ways of delivering scholarly science. And though (perhaps partly because) we are a compact, tightly knit organization, we pack an efficient punch, while looking vigilantly but hopefully toward the future.

Mary Seligy is a graduate of the biology program at Queen's University. Before joining CSP as a business analyst (IT), she worked variously as a scientific publishing editor, illustrator, and research technologist. Mary is also the technical team lead for Science Borealis.

(Image credit: the illustration "Predation" is also by Mary Seligy)

Filed Under: NRC Research Press Scholarly Publishing Science Communication Science and Art Mary Seligy

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