Rationalizing spatial exploration patterns of wild animals and humans through a temporal discounting framework

Vijay Mohan K. Namboodiri, Joshua M. Levy, Stefan Mihalas, David W. Sims, Marshall Shuler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding the exploration patterns of foragers in the wild provides fundamental insight into animal behavior. Recent experimental evidence has demonstrated that path lengths (distances between consecutive turns) taken by foragers are well fitted by a power law distribution. Numerous theoretical contributions have posited that "Lévy random walks"-which can produce power law path length distributions-are optimal for memoryless agents searching a sparse reward landscape. It is unclear, however, whether such a strategy is efficient for cognitively complex agents, from wild animals to humans. Here, we developed a model to explain the emergence of apparent power law path length distributions in animals that can learn about their environments. In our model, the agent's goal during search is to build an internal model of the distribution of rewards in space that takes into account the cost of time to reach distant locations (i.e., temporally discounting rewards). For an agent with such a goal, we find that an optimal model of exploration in fact produces hyperbolic path lengths, which are well approximated by power laws. We then provide support for our model by showing that humans in a laboratory spatial exploration task search space systematically and modify their search patterns under a cost of time. In addition, we find that path length distributions in a large dataset obtained from free-ranging marine vertebrates are well described by our hyperbolic model. Thus, we provide a general theoretical framework for understanding spatial exploration patterns of cognitively complex foragers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8747-8752
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - Aug 2 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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