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The implications of incorporating information-gathering into models of optimal foraging

Consumers can use perception and learning to adapt their foraging strategies to changing environments. Therefore, considering the costs and benefits of learning can help us understand the trade-offs involved in foraging behaviour. However, the process of learning and the influence of foraging constraints on learning are rarely included in mathematical models of foraging. Here, we present a model that quantifies the role of learning in the foraging process and aims to understand how differential energetic costs as well as the richness and predictability of the environment can shape the optimal time allocated to exploration and exploitation for foragers with different foraging and learning types. In the model, the optimal exploration-exploitation strategy is achieved by maximising net energy gain subject to the trade-off between the activities of learning (exploring) and feeding (exploiting). We examined three functional responses for the per-capita consumption rate! (Holling I, II, and III) and three types of learning curve (learning rate (i) remains constant, (ii) declines due to learning capacity and (iii) is enhanced by learning reward initially, but declines once learning capacity is exceeded). We found that saturation in food intake (a feature characterising Holling type II and III responses) determines if prey richness affects the optimal time invested in exploration and exploitation, and nonlinear learning curves determine if the maximum information gathering rate affects the optimal time invested in exploring. With the exception of constant-rate learners using a type I functional response, our model predicts that foragers should increase their time investment in exploring with decreasing relative metabolic cost of exploring, deceasing cognitive ability, increasing environmental predictability or decreasing prey density. These results demonstrate that foraging and learning constraints are influence the optimal exploration-exploitation strategy and should be considered when examining the trade-off between the two activities.

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