Flexible reprogramming of Pristionchus pacificus motivation for attacking Caenorhabditis elegans in predator-prey competition

Curr Biol. 2022 Apr 25;32(8):1675-1688.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.02.033. Epub 2022 Mar 7.


Animals with diverse diets must adapt their food priorities to a wide variety of environmental conditions. This diet optimization problem is especially complex for predators that compete with prey for food. Although predator-prey competition is widespread and ecologically critical, it remains difficult to disentangle predatory and competitive motivations for attacking competing prey. Here, we dissect the foraging decisions of the omnivorous nematode Pristionchus pacificus to reveal that its seemingly failed predatory attempts against Caenorhabditis elegans are actually motivated acts of efficacious territorial aggression. While P. pacificus easily kills and eats larval C. elegans with a single bite, adult C. elegans typically survives and escapes bites. However, non-fatal biting can provide competitive benefits by reducing access of adult C. elegans and its progeny to bacterial food that P. pacificus also eats. We show that the costs and benefits of both predatory and territorial outcomes influence how P. pacificus decides which food goal, prey or bacteria, should guide its motivation for biting. These predatory and territorial motivations impose different sets of rules for adjusting willingness to bite in response to changes in bacterial abundance. In addition to biting, predatory and territorial motivations also influence which search tactic P. pacificus uses to increase encounters with C. elegans. When treated with an octopamine receptor antagonist, P. pacificus switches from territorial to predatory motivation for both biting and search. Overall, we demonstrate that P. pacificus assesses alternate outcomes of attacking C. elegans and flexibly reprograms its foraging strategy to prioritize either prey or bacterial food.

Keywords: Caenorhabditis elegans; Pristionchus pacificus; behavioral flexibility; dopamine D2 receptors; foraging; intraguild predation; octopamine receptors; predation; territoriality.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria
  • Caenorhabditis elegans* / physiology
  • Motivation
  • Nematoda* / physiology
  • Predatory Behavior