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Moonlighting: The Effect of Moonlight on Prey Activity

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Imagine you’re stuck on the African plains at night – would you feel safer with or without the moon? Choose carefully, there are more than just lions out there.

Most people would imagine that moonless nights are safer – after all, lions need to see their prey to catch it, right? The extra light from the moon should make things more dangerous for prey. However, a new study points out a critical flaw in that logic: Wouldn’t the extra light also help the prey as well?

Turns out, each species might decide about that.

Counter to the above logic, lions tended to actually hunt less on moonlit nights, preferring the complete cover of darkness. Rodents and rabbits tended to prefer dark nights as well. Primates didn’t though – full moons correlated with more activity, not less. The researchers had originally thought that activity levels would be organized neatly into a food-chain, but what they found was that the most important factor was possibly a prey animal’s senses, not trophic level.

If you’re a sight-loving primate, for example, bright nights help you spot that creeping lion. If you’re a rabbit and depend on your ears, well, maybe that’s a good night to stay still. 

In fact, some prey species may even vary their choices based on seasonal variations and predation risk. A different study showed that snowshoe hares moved around less during bright, snowy nights than dark, snowy ones, but showed no variation during the snow-free months when, presumably, predator risks are much different.

The take-away message is that prey animals don’t just cower at any possible risk – they base their activity on measurable trade-offs and risks. The moon is bright – is my extra vision worth the risk? The moon is dark – can I depend on my ears to keep me safe?

What’s moving around out there in the night?

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Posted by on October 27, 2013 in Natural History


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