Understanding the structural complexity and the generative mechanisms of search behaviour is pivotal for many biological disciplines, from cell biology to human psychology. Search is a complex sensorimotor task balancing exploitative and exploratory strategies. The main objective of this proposal is to unveil this twofold behavioural nature of search processes and seek for potential applications in ecology and biomedicine. In the last decade, search theory has progressed to frame a powerful background for hypothesis testing, yet the interface between theoretical insights and actual search behaviour have not been exhaustively explored.
In this proposal we will tightly bridge search theory (through adaptation and generation of novel physico-mathematical models) with behavioural ecology methods (both experimental manipulation and comparative studies), in order to understand the role of uncertainty and stochasticity in search behaviour. We will look also for potential applications of our findings to improve (i) environmental and fauna monitoring with the use of drones, and (ii)immune system responses in rats. More specifically, we will test how organisms balance exploitative and explorative strategies when searching, what priors do animal use and how do they forget or change them to avoid inefficient strategies based on biased or unreliable information. To answer these questions will use nematodes as simple model organisms showing enough behavioural complexity, and humans as paradigms of rational and planned (exploitative) search. In the latter case will use vision search and app-based search games specifically designed to investigate whether biased judgment and sensory overconfidence prevent humans from more effective stochastic exploratory behaviour. Our hypothesis is that stochastic exploratory behaviour is intrinsically imprinted in the sensorimotor and cognitive systems of animals, and that some general principles and adaptive features could be identified across species, including humans. This view challenges the widespread belief of search as fully-informed and reactive process. We will foster applications related to exploratory robots and environmental monitoring, as well as biomedicine. We also hope our findings will have significant impact beyond its scientific field by improving search efficiency in a variety of settings, including ecological and biomedical research, search-and-rescue plans, and neuromarketing