Elk decision-making rules are simplified in the presence of wolves

John Winnie, David Christianson, Scott Creel, Bruce Maxwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


The risk of predation drives many behavioral responses in prey. However, few studies have directly tested whether predation risk alters the way other variables influence prey behavior. Here we use information theory (Akaike's Information Criterion, AICc) in a novel way to test the hypothesis that the decision-making rules governing elk behavior are simplified by the presence of wolves. With elk habitat use as the dependent variable, we test whether the number of independent variables (i.e., the size of the models) that best predict this behavior differ when wolves are present vs absent. Thus, we use AICc scores simply to determine the number of variables to which elk respond when making decisions. We measured habitat use using 2,288 locations from GPS collars on 14 elk, over two winters (14 elk winters), in the Gallatin Canyon portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We found that the use of three major habitat components (grass, conifer, sage) was sensitive to many variables on days that wolves were locally absent, with the best models (ΔAICc≤2) averaging 7.4 parameters. In contrast, habitat use was sensitive to few variables on days when wolves were present: the best models averaged only 2.5 parameters. Because fewer variables affect elk behavior in the presence of wolves, we conclude that elk use simpler decision-making rules in the presence of wolves. This simplification of decision-making rules implies that predation risk imposes selection pressures that do not allow prey to respond to other pressures in ways that they otherwise would. If the affected processes are important, then this indirect effect of predation is likely to be important.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)277-289
Number of pages13
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Antipredator behavior
  • Canis lupus
  • Cervus elaphus
  • Decision-making
  • Elk
  • Habitat use
  • Predation
  • Risk
  • Threat
  • Wolf

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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