Sable Island ponies “shop” like we do

Two ponies frolic on the Sable Island National Park Reserve off of the Nova Scotia coast. Photo courtesy of Philip McLoughlin.

Two ponies frolic on the Sable Island National Park Reserve off of the Nova Scotia coast. Photo courtesy of Philip McLoughlin.

It turns out that horses and people have a lot in common when it comes to shopping habits, according to Philip McLoughlin, associate professor of biology at the University of Saskatchewan.

In a paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology, McLoughlin and his colleagues describe the habits of the famous wild horses at Sable Island National Park Reserve off the Nova Scotia coast.

“We found that not only did the horses ‘shop’ for habitat patches in which to feed, they adjusted their preference for vegetation types to equalize what was used when more horses moved into the area,” he said.

The behaviour mirrors how human shoppers frantically search for the shortest queue to pay for groceries, moving from the express check-out to a regular check-out depending on the length of each line, or decide at which store to shop, based on which store is thought to be busiest and the travel time to get there.

“The horses moved across the length of Sable Island to minimize competition as population size increased, much as we might choose among stores to shop at,” McLoughlin said.

The Sable Island horse population has increased 42 per cent to more than 530 animals since the researchers began the planned 30-year research program in 2008.

McLoughlin explained that jostling for a better position in line or moving to a different store actually results in every shopper ending up spending roughly the same amount of time waiting in line, since everyone is thinking the same thing and pursuing the same strategy to get ahead.

“It’s called density-dependent habitat selection,” he said. “What is unique about our study is that it showed how it occurs in the Sable Island horses across two different scales within a habitat, but also among habitats – that is, within a store, but also among stores.”

The horses also appeared to consider other costs such as travel. They were reluctant to drop everything and move to the other side of the island in search for food, even if competition was increasing. A sort-of ‘store loyalty’ applied until things got too crowded.

“This work is helping us to understand what humans and animals share in our behaviours about economics,” McLoughlin said. “It may not apply so much to our shopping habits, but how we might maximize the effectiveness of where we drill for oil and deploy fishing fleets, for example.”

The work is also opening up a window into understanding how populations of animals function based on individual decisions, and what it means for the conservation of species. The knowledge could help answer key questions about the long-term viability of the Sable Island herd, whose small size and history of inbreeding make it much like an endangered species.

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