Conflict in Loons


This tutorial introduces game theory assuming no prior exposure to the topic. If you work through all the examples in detail, this tutorial should take about 45 minutes. This tutorial also refers to the tutorials on Probability in Payoffs (~15 minutes) and Stable Strategies (~30 minutes). At the end, there is an optional practice problem set (~30 minutes).

Introducing Game Theory

The resources an animal needs to survive and reproduce are limited, and individuals of the same species must compete for food, territories, mates, and shelter. Yet despite all of this competition, we seldom see actual fights between animals. Why is that? Can we come up with theoretical models that predict when there should be fights and how intense they will be when they occur?

Suppose that you and a competitor come across something that you both want. Should you fight, with a chance of getting all of it, or avoid fighting, perhaps sharing it? It depends in part on what your competitor does. If you know that your competitor will back off in the face of opposition, it pays to be aggressive and get the whole thing, but if your competitor fights too, you risk injury and may lose anyway, so it might be better to avoid fighting. If you don’t know in advance what your competitor will do and you have to come up with a strategy that is good in all possible situations, it’s not clear what that strategy should be.

Game theory is a way of analyzing competitive situations in which the outcome of a strategy for one player depends on what strategy the other player uses. That’s a rather broad set of situations, and game theory can be used to model many different behaviors. In this tutorial, we’ll use conflict over territories as an example.

Territoriality in Loons

Loons are large birds that spend the summers in lakes in the northern US and Canada, where they breed, and the winters in coastal areas. When they return to the lakes, and throughout the breeding season, they compete for good breeding territories. Professors Charlie Walcott of Cornell and Walter Piper of Chapman University have studied loon behavior and will explain some of the interesting and puzzling features of loon biology in the video clips that follow. Charlie starts with some basic information about loons, then Walter continues, describing breeding territories, pointing out the qualities that make a particular territory worth fighting for, and describing consequences of fights.

To summarize, high quality breeding territories can be scarce and are valuable to both males and females. Either a male or a female can be displaced from its territory by a stronger intruder. Unless displaced, loons are strongly attached to their territories and return to them year after year following their annual migration. Fights are rarely seen, but when they occur, they are intense, long-lasting, and sometimes fatal.

How might a loon, either a territory resident or an intruder, decide whether to fight or back down when challenged? Think about it for a couple of minutes, type some ideas in the space below, and then click the link below to continue.

This concludes the tutorial on conflict and symmetric games. For an introduction to asymmetric games, see the Parental Care topic.

Further Exploration

What if competing individuals are genetically related? Go through the tutorial on relatedness, make predictions about

After completing the parental care tutorial, try setting up an asymmetric game for loons

What still needs to be explained about loon fights? (e.g. why doesn't resident female help resident male fend off intruders, since if he loses, she also loses territory knowledge and thus breeding success).

Analogies to human behaviors

We need a bibliography and references to any of this research that is in print, as well as references to other work on hawk-dove and assessor.

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