Universal optimization of flight initiation distance and habitat-driven variation in escape tactics in a Namibian lizard assemblage

William E. Cooper*, Martin J. Whiting

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Citations (Scopus)


Some aspects of escape predicted by theoretical models are intended to apply universally. For example, flight initiation distance (distance between an approaching predator and prey when escape begins) is predicted from predation risk and the costs of escaping. Escape tactics and refuge selection are not currently predicted by theoretical models, but are expected to vary with structural features of the habitat. One way of studying such variation is to compare aspects of antipredatory behavior among sympatric species that differ in habitat or microhabitat use. In an assemblage of lizards in northwestern Namibia, we conducted experiments to test predictions of escape theory for three risk factors in representatives of three families and observed escape tactics in additional species. As predicted by escape theory, flight initiation distance increased with directness of a predator's approach and predator speed in Agama planiceps, Mabuya acutilabris, and Rhotropus boultoni, and with distance from refuge in M. acutilabris. As predicted by theory, the probability of entering refuge increased with risk in R. boultoni. All available data indicate that flight initiation distance and refuge entry by lizards conform to theoretical predictions. Escape tactics varied greatly as a function of habitat type: (1) arboreal species fled up and around trees and sometimes entered tree holes; (2) saxicolous species used rock crevices as refuges, but differed in tactics prior to entering refuges; and (3) terrestrial species fled into bushes or other vegetation, often to the far sides of them. Some M. acutilabris entered small animal burrows or buried themselves in sand beneath bushes. Escape tactics varied even among congeners in Mabuya, highlighting the important effect of habitat structure on them. Although habitat partitioning has traditionally been viewed as favoring species coexistence, an interesting by-product appears to be structuring of escape tactics in lizard communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)661-672
Number of pages12
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2007
Externally publishedYes


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