A two-year study has discovered it is possible to influence hummingbirds' choice of food by changing the options available to them, in the same way supermarkets can manipulate customers' preferences by clever positioning of products.
The study is published in the current edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society. Dr Melissa Bateson, of the School of Biology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and a member of the research team, said the findings shed new light on the way animals, including humans, make 'consumer' choices - and are therefore likely to be of use to marketing theorists as well as naturalists.
The technique can also potentially be applied to conservation projects, such as those focused on protecting certain species of flower, said Dr Bateson, a Royal Society Research Fellow, who will present the findings of this and other projects at a symposium in Berlin next week.
The research team, comprising animal behaviour experts from the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh in the UK and the University of Lethbridge, Canada, repeated an experiment on hummingbirds originally carried out by marketing experts on humans. This showed that supermarkets influenced the choices of around a third of shoppers when they changed the range of products open to them.
Central to the experiment was getting consumers to choose between two competing brands and then seeing how the introduction of a new product altered their choice. It found that, after introduction of a carefully selected 'decoy' product which enhanced the attractiveness of the 'target' brand the one supermarkets wanted shoppers to buy - around a third of customers' switched their preference accordingly. The marketing experts called this the 'Asymmetrically Dominatedant Effect'.