Simulating how animals learn: a new modelling framework applied to the process of optimal foraging

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  • Animal learning has interested ecologists and psychologists for over a century. Mathematical models that explain how animals store and recall information have gained attention recently. Central to this work is statistical decision theory (SDT), which relates information uptake in
    animals to Bayesian inference. SDT effectively explains many learning tasks in animals, but extending this theory to predict how animals will learn in changing environments still poses a challenge for ecologists. We addressed this shortcoming with a novel implementation of Bayesian
    Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) sampling to simulate how animals sample environmental information and learn as a result. We applied our framework to an individual-based model simulating complex foraging tasks encountered by wild animals. Simulated “animals” learned
    behavioral strategies that optimized foraging returns simply by following the principles of an MCMC sampler. In these simulations, behavioral plasticity was most conducive to efficient foraging in unpredictable and uncertain environments. Our model suggests that animals prioritize highly concentrated resources even when these resources are less available overall, in line with existing knowledge on optimal foraging and ideal free distribution theory. Our innovative computational modelling framework can be applied more widely to simulate the learning of many other tasks in animals and humans.

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    Article (Draft / Submitted)
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    Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International