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Abstract

Preferences for common food types (‘apostatic selection’) have been demonstrated in a wide variety of vertebrate predators, yet there are few examples of preferences for rare food types (‘anti-apostatic selection’). Anti-apostatic selection is predicted to occur when, among other things, there are nutritional benefits to be gained from the consumption of a mixed diet. We tested this hypothesis by examining the frequency-dependent food preferences of domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) with different nutritional histories. Subjects were classified as being either nutritionally ‘experienced’ (farm and rescue shelter cats, with a history of scavenging for nutritionally variable foods) or nutritionally ‘inexperienced’ (cats reared indoors on high-quality, nutritionally complete diets). We tested for frequency dependence by allowing individuals and groups of cats from the two groups to select from high-density mixtures of two types of artificial food pellet. In experiments on individual cats, nutritionally experienced subjects showed significant anti-apostatic selection, whereas inexperienced cats produced only a weak anti-apostatic trend. In experiments on groups of cats, both inexperienced and experienced groups showed significant anti-apostatic selection. The apparent inconsistency between individual and group results could be explained in terms of the additional anti-apostatic effects that result from variation among individuals in group foraging situations (i.e. when the effects of individuals are pooled). Because other behavioural explanations, such as perceptual contrast and sampling effects, were unlikely to have influenced our results, we conclude that the differences in selection between experienced and inexperienced individuals were probably due to the differing extent to which the consumption of a mixed diet was beneficial. These experiments may offer some insight into the success of the domestic cat in urban areas: although obligate carnivores, they appear to possess flexible feeding strategies which will tend to allow them to select a reasonably balanced diet from nutritionally variable resources in, for example, refuse bins.