Phi index: a new metric to test the flush early and avoid the rush hypothesis

PLoS One. 2014 Nov 18;9(11):e113134. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113134. eCollection 2014.


Optimal escape theory states that animals should counterbalance the costs and benefits of flight when escaping from a potential predator. However, in apparent contradiction with this well-established optimality model, birds and mammals generally initiate escape soon after beginning to monitor an approaching threat, a phenomena codified as the "Flush Early and Avoid the Rush" (FEAR) hypothesis. Typically, the FEAR hypothesis is tested using correlational statistics and is supported when there is a strong relationship between the distance at which an individual first responds behaviorally to an approaching predator (alert distance, AD), and its flight initiation distance (the distance at which it flees the approaching predator, FID). However, such correlational statistics are both inadequate to analyze relationships constrained by an envelope (such as that in the AD-FID relationship) and are sensitive to outliers with high leverage, which can lead one to erroneous conclusions. To overcome these statistical concerns we develop the phi index (Φ), a distribution-free metric to evaluate the goodness of fit of a 1:1 relationship in a constraint envelope (the prediction of the FEAR hypothesis). Using both simulation and empirical data, we conclude that Φ is superior to traditional correlational analyses because it explicitly tests the FEAR prediction, is robust to outliers, and it controls for the disproportionate influence of observations from large predictor values (caused by the constrained envelope in AD-FID relationship). Importantly, by analyzing the empirical data we corroborate the strong effect that alertness has on flight as stated by the FEAR hypothesis.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Escape Reaction / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal / physiology
  • Models, Biological*
  • Time Factors

Grant support

The authors have no support or funding to report.