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J R Soc Interface. 2014 Jan 15;11(92):20131092. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2013.1092. Print 2014 Mar 6.

Mechanistic analysis of the search behaviour of Caenorhabditis elegans.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, , Guyot Hall, Princeton, NJ 08542, USA.


A central question in movement research is how animals use information and movement to promote encounter success. Current random search theory identifies reorientation patterns as key to the compromise between optimizing encounters for both nearby and faraway targets, but how the balance between intrinsic motor programmes and previous environmental experience determines the occurrence of these reorientation behaviours remains unknown. We used high-resolution tracking and imaging data to describe the complete motor behaviour of Caenorhabditis elegans when placed in a novel environment (one in which food is absent). Movement in C. elegans is structured around different reorientation behaviours, and we measured how these contributed to changing search strategies as worms became familiar with their new environment. This behavioural transition shows that different reorientation behaviours are governed by two processes: (i) an environmentally informed 'extrinsic' strategy that is influenced by recent experience and that controls for area-restricted search behaviour, and (ii) a time-independent, 'intrinsic' strategy that reduces spatial oversampling and improves random encounter success. Our results show how movement strategies arise from a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms, that search behaviour in C. elegans is initially determined by expectations developed from previous environmental experiences, and which reorientation behaviours are modified as information is acquired from new environments.


Caenorhabditis elegans; environmental uncertainty; reorientation patterns; search behaviour; stochasticity; superdiffusion

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