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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Breakdown of the ideal free distribution under conditions of severe and low competition

Sirovnik, Janja; Voelkl, Bernhard; Keeling, Linda Jane; Wuerbel, Hanno; Toscano, Michael Jeffrey


Under the ideal free distribution (IFD), the number of organisms competing for a resource at different sites is proportional to the resource distribution among sites. The ideal free distribution of competitors in a heterogeneous environment often predicts habitat matching, where the relative number of individuals using any two patches matches the relative availability of resources in those same two patches. If a resource is scarce, access might be restricted to individuals with high resource holding potential, resulting in deviation from the IFD. The distribution of animals may also deviate from the IFD in the case of resource abundance, when social attraction or preference for specific locations rather than competition may determine distribution. While it was originally developed to explain habitat choice, we apply the habitat matching rule to microscale foraging decisions. We show that chickens feeding from two nondepleting feeders distribute proportionally to feeder space under intermediate levels of competition. However, chicken distribution between the feeders deviates from the IFD when feeder space is limited and competition high. Further, despite decreasing aggression with increasing feeder space, deviation from IFD is also observed under an excess supply of feeder space, indicating different mechanisms responsible for deviations from the IFD. Besides demonstrating IFD sensitivity to competition, these findings highlight IFD's potential as a biological basis for determining minimal resource requirements in animal housing.Significance statementThe ideal free distribution (IFD) predicts how animals ought to distribute themselves within a habitat in order to maximize their payoff. Recent studies, however, have questioned the validity of the IFD concept following anomalous results. We studied the IFD in chickens by systematically varying the amount and distribution of space at two feed troughs. We show that when tested over a sufficiently large range, the distribution of birds depends on the overall resource availability. Furthermore, behavioral data suggest that distinctly different mechanisms account for deviations from the IFD at shortage and excess supply of feeder space, respectively.


Laying hens; Feeder space; Matching rule; Social attraction; Aggression

Published in

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
2021, volume: 75, number: 2, article number: 31
Publisher: SPRINGER

Authors' information

Sirovnik, Janja
University of Bern
Voelkl, Bernhard
University of Bern
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Animal Environment and Health
Wuerbel, Hanno
University of Bern
Toscano, Michael Jeffrey
University of Bern

UKÄ Subject classification

Animal and Dairy Science

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