Commun Biol. 2023 Aug 14;6(1):841. doi: 10.1038/s42003-023-05220-3.
Rules of thumb are behavioral algorithms that approximate optimal behavior while lowering cognitive and sensory costs. One way to reduce these costs is by simplifying the representation of the environment: While the theoretically optimal behavior may depend on many environmental variables, a rule of thumb may use a smaller set of variables that performs reasonably well. Experimental proof of this simplification requires an exhaustive mapping of all relevant combinations of several environmental parameters, which we performed for Caenorhabditis elegans foraging by covering systematically combinations of food density (across 4 orders of magnitude) and food type (across 12 bacterial strains). We found that worms’ response is dominated by a single environmental variable: food density measured as number of bacteria per unit surface. They disregard other factors such as biomass content or bacterial strain. We also measured experimentally the impact on fitness of each type of food, determining that the rule is near-optimal and therefore constitutes a rule of thumb that leverages the most informative environmental variable. These results set the stage for further investigations into the underlying genetic and neural mechanisms governing this simplification process, and into its role in the evolution of decision-making strategies.