Poor nutritional condition promotes high-risk behaviours: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Nicholas P. Moran*, Alfredo Sánchez-Tójar, Holger Schielzeth, Klaus Reinhold

*Corresponding author for this work

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Animal behaviour can lead to varying levels of risk, and an individual's physical condition can alter the potential costs and benefits of undertaking risky behaviours. How risk-taking behaviour depends on condition is subject to contrasting hypotheses. The asset protection principle proposes that individuals in better condition should be more risk averse, as they have higher future reproductive potential (i.e. more to lose). The state-dependent safety hypothesis proposes that high-condition individuals that are more likely to survive and maximise the benefits of risky situations may make apparently riskier choices, as their individual risk is in fact lower. We systematically searched for studies that experimentally manipulated animals’ nutritional or energetic condition through diet treatments, and subsequently measured risk-taking behaviour in contexts relating to predation, novelty and exploration. Our meta-analysis quantified condition effects on risk-taking behaviour at both the mean and variance level. We preregistered our methods and hypotheses prior to conducting the study. Phylogenetic multilevel meta-analysis revealed that the lower-nutritional-condition individuals showed on average ca. 26% greater tendency towards risk than high-condition individuals (95% confidence interval: 15–38%; N = 126 studies, 1297 effect sizes). Meta-regressions revealed several factors influencing the overall effect, such as the experimental context used to measure risk-taking behaviour, and the life stage when condition was manipulated. Meta-analysis of variance revealed no clear overall effect of condition on behavioural variance (on average ca. 3% decrease in variance in low- versus high-condition groups; 95% confidence interval: −8 to 3%; N = 119 studies, 1235 effect sizes), however, the experimental context was an important factor influencing the strength and direction of the variance effect. Our comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis provide insights into the roles of state dependency and plasticity in intraspecific behavioural variation. While heterogeneity among effect sizes was high, our results show that poor nutritional state on average increases risk taking in ecological contexts involving predation, novelty and exploration.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)269-288
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Boldness
  • Exploration
  • Novelty
  • Novel environment
  • Novel object
  • Predation
  • Predator response
  • Animal personality
  • Shoaling
  • Dietary restriction


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