A generalized functional response for predators that switch between multiple prey species

E. van Leeuwen*, A. Brannstrom, V. A. A. Jansen, U. Dieckmann, A. G. Rossberg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


We develop a theory for the food intake of a predator that can switch between multiple prey species. The theory addresses empirical observations of prey switching and is based on the behavioural assumption that a predator tends to continue feeding on prey that are similar to the prey it has consumed last, in terms of, e.g., their morphology, defences, location, habitat choice, or behaviour. From a predator's dietary history and the assumed similarity relationship among prey species, we derive a general closed-form multi-species functional response for describing predators switching between multiple prey species. Our theory includes the Holling type II functional response as a special case and makes consistent predictions when populations of equivalent prey are aggregated or split. An analysis of the derived functional response enables us to highlight the following five main findings. (1) Prey switching leads to an approximate power-law relationship between ratios of prey abundance and prey intake, consistent with experimental data. (2) In agreement with empirical observations, the theory predicts an upper limit of 2 for the exponent of such power laws. (3) Our theory predicts deviations from power-law switching at very low and very high prey-abundance ratios. (4) The theory can predict the diet composition of a predator feeding on multiple prey species from diet observations for predators feeding only on pairs of prey species. (5) Predators foraging on more prey species will show less pronounced prey switching than predators foraging on fewer prey species, thus providing a natural explanation for the known difficulties of observing prey switching in the field. 

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-98
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Early online date17 Feb 2013
Publication statusPublished - 07 Jul 2013


  • Prey similarity
  • Functional response
  • Frequency-dependent selection
  • Adaptive foraging
  • Search image

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry,Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Modelling and Simulation
  • Statistics and Probability
  • Applied Mathematics


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