U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Document Type


Date of this Version



Ethology Ecology & Evolution 22: 393–404, 2010; DOI: 10.1080/03949370.2010.505580


Behavioral flexibility is an important adaptive response to changing environments for many animal species. Such plasticity may also promote the invasion of novel habitats by introduced species by providing them with the ability to expand or change their ecological niche, a longstanding idea with recent empirical support. At the individual level, flexibility may arise through innovation, in which an individual invents a new behavior, or through social learning, in which an individual adopts a behavior used by others. There is increasing evidence that the adaptive value of these two modes of learning, and the overall expression of behavioral flexibility, may vary with social and environmental context. In this paper, we propose that invasive species may change the degree to which they express behavioral flexibility in an adaptive manner during the different stages of invasion. Specifically, the “adaptive flexibility hypothesis” predicts that the expression of behavioral flexibility, and thus the diversity of behaviors observed in a population, will be high during the initial stage of introduction into a novel environment due to innovation, followed by a decline in behavioral diversity during the establishment and growth of a founding population due to social learning of successful behavioral variants. We discuss several alternatives to this hypothesis and suggest empirical and theoretical tests of these hypotheses. This “adaptive flexibility hypothesis” suggests that a more nuanced approach to the study of the behaviors employed by individuals in populations at different invasion stages could generate new insight into the importance of such flexibility during species invasions, and the evolution of behavioral plasticity in general.