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Cooperative hunting does not require complex thinking skills

Researchers have long believed that cooperative hunting, where predators work together to catch prey, required sophisticated cognitive processes.

However, a recent study reveals that this complex behavior might emerge from mechanisms that are much simpler than expected.

Breakthrough research from Japan

A team of scientists at Nagoya University in Japan has discovered that cooperation among predators can arise from basic rules and experience, rather than advanced cognitive abilities.

The research not only enhances our understanding of animal behavior but also has implications for the development of collaborative artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

Challenging assumptions on cooperative hunting

Earlier studies linked cooperative hunting to mammals with complex social behaviors, such as lions and chimpanzees.

Surprisingly, similar behaviors are observed in species with less advanced cognitive abilities, like crocodiles and fish. This suggests that simpler mechanisms might be at play.

To explore this theory, the researchers developed a computational model using deep reinforcement learning. In the model, AI agents learned to hunt together by receiving rewards for their actions.

This approach allows algorithms to learn through interaction with the environment, processing inputs such as position and velocity, and making autonomous decisions.

The reality of cooperative hunting

Programmed with reinforcement learning capabilities, AI predator agents were trained to collaborate by maximizing future rewards. These agents displayed distinct and complementary roles during the simulations.

For instance, one agent would chase the prey while another would ambush it. As the number of predators increased, the success rate of hunts went up, and the time needed to capture prey decreased.

In a final test, AI agents acted as predators while human participants played the role of prey. Despite initial confusion due to unexpected human movements, the AI agents quickly adapted and successfully captured the humans.

This experiment demonstrated that cooperative hunting does not require complex cognitive processes, suggesting that real-world predators may also learn to collaborate through simple decision rules.

“Our predator agents learned to collaborate using reinforcement learning, without requiring complex cognitive mechanisms akin to the theory of mind,” said study co-author Kazushi Tsutsui. “This suggests that cooperative hunting can evolve in a wider range of species than previously thought.”

Broader implications of the study

The findings have significant implications beyond the animal kingdom. They highlight the potential to advance cooperative AI systems, which could be used in various domains requiring collaborative solutions, such as autonomous driving and traffic management.

The research team also anticipates that their discoveries will inspire new field studies on decision-making in predator-prey dynamics.

Ultimately, the study challenges the notion that complex cognitive processes are necessary for cooperative hunting. Instead, it shows that simple rules and experience can lead to effective collaboration among predators, opening new avenues for both animal behavior research and the development of advanced AI systems.

Examples of cooperative hunting

Lions are perhaps the most famous cooperative hunters, working in groups to surround and take down large prey such as zebras and wildebeests. Similarly, wolves hunt in packs to effectively manage and capture faster or larger animals that one wolf alone could not overpower.

Orcas and dolphins

In the aquatic world, orcas, also known as killer whales, use sophisticated hunting techniques that rely on the group’s coordination. They are known to create waves to wash seals off ice floes, or they herd fish into tight balls for easier feeding. 

Dolphins display similar behaviors, encircling schools of fish and taking turns to feed in the center of the fish shoal.


Chimpanzees also demonstrate cooperative hunting when they target medium-sized mammals like monkeys. They orchestrate complex chases, with some chimps blocking potential escape routes while others actively chase the prey. This kind of strategy requires not only physical skill but also advanced communication and role assignment.

Unique strategies 

Cooperative hunting not only enhances the efficiency of predators in capturing food but also plays a crucial role in the social structures and communication development of these animals. 

Each species has evolved unique strategies that fit their environment and physical capabilities, illustrating the diverse ways in which animal societies organize themselves to meet their needs.

The study is published in the journal eLife.


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