“The discovery sheds light on a distinct evolutionary advantage…”
Have you ever stood in the grocery store, eyeing the checkout counters to see which one has the shortest line?
It turns out you’re not alone.
According to Philip McLoughlin, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s biology department, wild horses on the Sable Island National Park Reserve off the coast of Nova Scotia do the exact same thing.
“What we did is we followed the horses and how they moved about the island and decided what habitats and areas to feed or forage in,” said McLoughlin. “We found that the horses would select areas in which to feed much in the same way that humans will select lines in which to buy their groceries and checkout.”
In addition to dispersing within a specific area, McLoughlin said the wild horses travel across the roughly 40-km long and 1.5-km wide sliver of land in order to avoid crowds.
“This is just how humans might decide what store to go to if it’s a busy day,” he said. “They might decide to not go to the busiest store and instead go to one a little further away but less busy.”
He added that although this type of behaviour has previously been found in smaller animals and primates, until now it hasn’t been confirmed in large hoof-footed ungulates.
The discovery sheds light on a distinct evolutionary advantage and the implications of overcrowding, he said.
“As individuals become overcrowded, the ability to make movements to maximize your time feeding breaks down,” said McLoughlin. “It’s called density dependent habitat selection. We can predict that it’s strongest at small densities but as you get to an overcrowded situation everyone just starts to scramble around.”
McLoughlin’s research is part of a 30-year study that began in 2007 to map the movements of the approximately 500 Sable Island horses.
The findings of his team were published in the September, 2013 issue of the Journal of Animal Ecology.