Managing uncertainty: information and insurance under the risk of starvation

Sasha R. X. Dall, Rufus A. Johnstone


In an uncertain world, animals face both unexpected opportunities and danger. Such outcomes can select for two potential strategies: collecting information to reduce uncertainty, or insuring against it. We investigate the relative value of information and insurance (energy reserves) under starvation risk by offering model foragers a choice between constant and varying food sources over finite foraging bouts. We show that sampling the variable option (choosing it when it is not expected to be good) should decline both with lower reserves and late in foraging bouts; in order to be able to reap the reduction in uncertainty associated with exploiting a variable resource effectively, foragers must be able to afford and compensate for an initial increase in the risk of an energetic shortfall associated with choosing the option when it is bad. Consequently, expected exploitation of the varying option increases as it becomes less variable, and when the overall risk of energetic shortfall is reduced. In addition, little activity on the variable alternative is expected until reserves are built up early in a foraging bout. This indicates that gathering information is a luxury while insurance is a necessity, at least when foraging on stochastic and variable food under the risk of starvation.