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Pheasants are not all equal in the face of the fox

In theory, nothing new, the size of the territory of most animals would be linked to its cognitive abilities, if only to remember its limits. But it’s hard to prove “because they may have other reasons for limiting themselves to a small territory”explains evolutionary biologist Robert Heathcote of the University of Bristol.

To find out for sure, a team from the British University of Exeter conducted a life-size experiment in an English forest.

Before being released there, 126 captive-bred pheasants underwent three tests over a few weeks to gauge their cognitive abilities, and in particular two types of spatial memory. So-called working memory, which is short-term, allows an individual to remember that if he has found an earthworm in one place, there is no point in going back there five minutes later. The second, called spatial reference memory, of longer term, allows the pheasant to remember a route even after several days.

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The study establishes that it is this memory of spatial reference that dictates the size of a pheasant’s territory. This territory, “which is the area where he spends most of his time, is also the one he knows best”, according to Mr. Heathcote. Its extent is less than one hundred meters long and up to one square kilometer.

In the space of six months, the researchers recorded the predation of 45 pheasants, all under the fangs of red foxes. Each bird was equipped with a tiny beacon, allowing its location almost in real time. “This made it possible to know when the trajectory of the beacon was no longer that of the pheasant, but had become that of the fox”, says Heathcote. The ambulation of the bird changed, once seized in the jaws of its predator, into a straight, fast and distant trajectory of the fox, towards a place to devour its prey.

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The pheasants most likely to end their lives this way were those with poor spatial reference memory. Their end was also more likely at the borders of their territory. “Knowing an area helps the pheasant stay alive”and vice versa, according to Dr Joah Madden, of the University of Exeter.

Even in areas favored by foxes, a pheasant’s chances of survival depend above all on its experience of the terrain. The most skilful do not avoid the death zone but “over time they can learn which are the surest ways to escape an attack”.

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