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Ecology of Individuals: Using Game Theory to Understand Animal Behavior


Kyla Flanagan
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Calgary


This case study is based on the game theory developed by John Maynard Smith where two behavioral strategies ("Hawks" and "Doves") compete over a contested resource. During this 50- to 75-minute case, students experience "hands-on"' the change in frequency of the behavioral strategies by playing the game Rock-Paper-Scissors and documenting the results using clicker responses. Through this simulation, students explore ideas of natural selection, evolution, evolutionarily stable states, coexistence of behavioral strategies, and frequency dependent selection. The case can be easily adapted to focus more heavily on one or more of these different aspects of evolution by natural selection.  In addition, the case provides an opportunity for students to confront misconceptions they may have about evolution and to learn about possibility of coexistence between aggressive and non-aggressive phenotypes. This case study is ideal for a large introductory ecology or evolutionary biology course where the students are familiar with basic background concepts in individual ecology, evolution, natural selection, and evolutionary fitness.

  • Explain what game theory is and how/why it is applied to ecology.
  • Explain how novel behavioral strategies can invade a population.
  • Define evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) and frequency dependent selection.
  • Describe why natural selection acts on relative fitness and how relative fitness can depend on the frequency of other "types" of individuals in the population.
  • Explain how coexistence of multiple behavioral strategies in a population is possible.
Keywords: Game theory; animal behavior; hawks and doves; frequency dependent selection; evolution; aggressive and non-aggressive; evolutionarily stable strategy; state coexistence; fitness; John Maynard Smith; John Nash
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Clicker, Interrupted, Role-Play
Language: English
Subject Headings: Evolutionary Biology   Biology (General)   Ecology  
Date Posted: 1/8/2015
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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