The geography of fear: a latitudinal gradient in anti-predator escape distances of birds across Europe

PLoS One. 2013 May 28;8(5):e64634. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064634. Print 2013.


All animals flee from potential predators, and the distance at which this happens is optimized so the benefits from staying are balanced against the costs of flight. Because predator diversity and abundance decreases with increasing latitude, and differs between rural and urban areas, we should expect escape distance when a predator approached the individual to decrease with latitude and depend on urbanization. We measured the distance at which individual birds fled (flight initiation distance, FID, which represents a reliable and previously validated surrogate measure of response to predation risk) following a standardized protocol in nine pairs of rural and urban sites along a ca. 3000 km gradient from Southern Spain to Northern Finland during the breeding seasons 2009-2010. Raptor abundance was estimated by means of standard point counts at the same sites where FID information was recorded. Data on body mass and phylogenetic relationships among bird species sampled were extracted from the literature. An analysis of 12,495 flight distances of 714 populations of 159 species showed that mean FID decreased with increasing latitude after accounting for body size and phylogenetic effects. This decrease was paralleled by a similar cline in an index of the abundance of raptors. Urban populations had consistently shorter FIDs, supporting previous findings. The difference between rural and urban habitats decreased with increasing latitude, also paralleling raptor abundance trends. Overall, the latitudinal gradient in bird fear was explained by raptor abundance gradients, with additional small effects of latitude and intermediate effects of habitat. This study provides the first empirical documentation of a latitudinal trend in anti-predator behavior, which correlated positively with a similar trend in the abundance of predators.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Ecosystem
  • Escape Reaction / physiology*
  • Europe
  • Fear*
  • Flight, Animal / physiology
  • Geography*
  • Phylogeny
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*
  • Raptors / physiology
  • Species Specificity

Grant support

TG was supported by the Human Frontier Science Program (RGY69/07) and MSM6198959212. JJ was supported by the EU Regional Development Foundation for the project (A31026). MD was funded by the project RISKDISP (CGL2009-08430) of the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación. GM was supported by TÁMOP-4.2.1./B-09/1-KMR-2010-0005 and TÁMOP-4.2.2./B-10/1-2010-0023 grants. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.