Mobbing (animal behavior)

Mobbing in animals is an antipredator adaptation in which individuals of prey species mob a predator by cooperatively attacking or harassing it, usually to protect their offspring. A simple definition of mobbing is an assemblage of individuals around a potentially dangerous predator. This is most frequently seen in birds, though it is also known to occur in many other animals such as the meerkat. While mobbing has evolved independently in many species, it only tends to be present in those whose young are frequently preyed upon. This behavior may complement cryptic adaptations in the offspring themselves, such as camouflage and hiding. Mobbing calls may be used to summon nearby individuals to cooperate in the attack.

Konrad Lorenz, in his book On Aggression (1966), attributed mobbing among birds and animals to instincts rooted in the Darwinian struggle to survive. In his view, humans are subject to similar innate impulses but capable of bringing them under rational control (see mobbing).

Birds that breed in colonies such as gulls are widely seen to attack intruders, including encroaching humans. In North America, the birds that most frequently engage in mobbing include mockingbirds, crows and jays, chickadees, terns, and blackbirds. Behavior includes flying about the intruder, dive bombing, loud squawking and defecating on the predator. Mobbing can also be used to obtain food, by driving larger birds and mammals away from a food source, or by harassing a bird with food. One bird might distract while others quickly steal food. Scavenging birds such as gulls frequently use this technique to steal food from humans nearby. A flock of birds might drive a powerful animal away from food. Costs of mobbing behavior include the risk of engaging with predators, as well as energy expended in the process. The black-headed gull is a species which aggressively engages intruding predators, such as carrion crows. Classic experiments on this species by Hans Kruuk involved placing hen eggs at intervals from a nesting colony, and recording the percentage of successful predation events as well as the probability of the crow being subjected to mobbing. The results showed decreasing mobbing with increased distance from the nest, which was correlated with increased predation success. Mobbing may function by reducing the predator's ability to locate nests (as a distraction) since predators cannot focus on locating eggs while they are under attack.

Besides the ability to drive the predator away, mobbing also draws attention to the predator, making stealth attacks impossible. Mobbing plays a critical role in the identification of predators and inter-generational learning about predator identification. Reintroduction of species is often unsuccessful, because the established population lacks this cultural knowledge of how to identify local predators. Scientists are exploring ways to train populations to identify and respond to predators before releasing them into the wild.

Adaptationist hypotheses regarding why an organism should engage in such risky behavior have been suggested by Eberhard Curio, including advertising their physical fitness and hence uncatchability (much like stotting behavior in gazelles), distracting predators from finding their offspring, warning their offspring, luring the predator away, allowing offspring to learn to recognize the predator species, directly injuring the predator or attracting a predator of the predator itself. The much lower frequency of attacks between nesting seasons suggests such behavior may have evolved due to its benefit for the mobber's young. Niko Tinbergen argued that the mobbing was a source of confusion to gull chick predators, distracting them from searching for prey . Indeed, an intruding carrion crow can only avoid incoming attacks by facing its attackers, which prevents it from locating its target.

Besides experimental research, the comparative method can also be employed to investigate hypotheses such as those given by Curio above. For example, not all gull species show mobbing behavior. The kittiwake nests on sheer cliffs that are almost completely inaccessible to predators, meaning its young are not at risk of predation like other gull species. This is an example of divergent evolution.

This page was last edited on 3 February 2018, at 03:47.
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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