Search and navigation in dynamic environments – from individual behaviors to population distributions


  • Thomas Mueller,

  • William F. Fagan

T. Mueller ( Graduate Program in Behavior, Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, Univ. of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA, and National Zoological Park, Conservation and Research Center, Front Royal, VA 22630, USA. – W. F. Fagan, Dept of Biology, Univ. of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA.


Animal movement receives widespread attention within ecology and behavior. However, much research is restricted within isolated sub-disciplines focusing on single phenomena such as navigation (e.g. homing behavior), search strategies (e.g. Levy flights) or theoretical considerations of optimal population dispersion (e.g. ideal free distribution). To help synthesize existing research, we outline a unifying conceptual framework that integrates individual-level behaviors and population-level spatial distributions with respect to spatio-temporal resource dynamics. We distinguish among (1) non-oriented movements based on diffusion and kinesis in response to proximate stimuli, (2) oriented movements utilizing perceptual cues of distant targets, and (3) memory mechanisms that assume prior knowledge of a target's location. Species’ use of these mechanisms depends on life-history traits and resource dynamics, which together shape population-level patterns. Resources with little spatial variability should facilitate sedentary ranges, whereas resources with predictable seasonal variation in spatial distributions should generate migratory patterns. A third pattern, ‘nomadism’, should emerge when resource distributions are unpredictable in both space and time. We summarize recent advances in analyses of animal trajectories and outline three major components on which future studies should focus: (1) integration across alternative movement mechanisms involving links between state variables and specific mechanisms, (2) consideration of dynamics in resource landscapes or environments that include resource gradients in predictability, variability, scale, and abundance, and finally (3) quantitative methods to distinguish among population distributions. We suggest that combining techniques such as evolutionary programming and pattern oriented modeling will help to build strong links between underlying movement mechanisms and broad-scale population distributions.