Optimal foraging theory: Application and inspiration in human endeavors outside biology

Graham H. Pyke, David W. Stephens

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


Since it began, just over 50 years ago, Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT) has grown and developed a great deal, largely as initially anticipated. Mostly unanticipated, however, has been the application of the approach to areas outside of biology. OFT has inspired developments in a wide range of fields. Investigators have applied OFT to an amazing range of human endeavors both within biology and farther afield; including resource conservation and management, archaeology, criminology, gambling, searching the internet, development of computer software, and a wide variety of other human activities. The literature in relation to these areas is substantial and growing, with general agreement that OFT helps significantly. Inspiration by OFT has emerged from a combination of the following three ideas: foraging organisms face problems that are analogous to problems that humans commonly confront; organisms have evolved ‘solutions’, possibly optimal ones, to these pervasive problems; analogous solutions may help to solve the human situations that involve optimization. However, by necessity and without detracting from the usefulness of this approach, these models make assumptions that are not based on known biology and in the end do not really include much biology. None-the-less, a wide array of organisms has provided inspiration for solving many different human technology problems that involve optimization. Any human problem that involves climbing gradients towards maxima would seem well suited to OFT-inspired models or algorithms. The array of organisms that have been used as inspiration for solving such human problems is truly amazing, and has included bacteria, ants, cuckoos, honeybees, spiders, hummingbirds, bats, frogs, and even plant roots. OFT has also inspired research in other areas that do not involve optimization but include conceptual similarities between situations faced by foraging animals and certain human situations; most of these have so far been medically-related. Models or algorithms, generated in the context of human optimization, could be used to develop and test predictions in terms of animal foraging, but so far this has apparently not been attempted. Such integration between OFT and human optimization therefore awaits further research. Application and inspiration of OFT into areas outside the traditional realm of biology and into human technology have been almost completely unanticipated. One might have anticipated the application into archaeology, but who would have guessed that OFT would ultimately be applied into the worlds of criminals, drug addicts, and computer users! Perhaps OFT will provide future application and inspiration in ways yet to be imagined!.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Animal Behavior
Number of pages6
ISBN (Electronic)9780128132517
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Elsevier Ltd.


  • Algorithms
  • Application
  • Human technology
  • Inspiration
  • Optimal foraging theory
  • Optimization problems


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