Optimizing the success of random searches

Nature. 1999 Oct 28;401(6756):911-4. doi: 10.1038/44831.


We address the general question of what is the best statistical strategy to adapt in order to search efficiently for randomly located objects ('target sites'). It is often assumed in foraging theory that the flight lengths of a forager have a characteristic scale: from this assumption gaussian, Rayleigh and other classical distributions with well-defined variances have arisen. However, such theories cannot explain the long-tailed power-law distributions of flight lengths or flight times that are observed experimentally. Here we study how the search efficiency depends on the probability distribution of flight lengths taken by a forager that can detect target sites only in its limited vicinity. We show that, when the target sites are sparse and can be visited any number of times, an inverse square power-law distribution of flight lengths, corresponding to Lévy flight motion, is an optimal strategy. We test the theory by analysing experimental foraging data on selected insect, mammal and bird species, and find that they are consistent with the predicted inverse square power-law distributions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Birds
  • Deer
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Flight, Animal
  • Models, Biological*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Random Allocation