I have a general interest in complex adaptive systems and I have found that nature and the organisms within it is a perfect natural case of a rich adaptive system with a lot of possibilities for gaining insight in general about the nature of complex adaptive systems.

My mind accidentally started thinking about the common human feeding pattern breakfast-lunch-dinner and I sought reference points in nature, realizing that I'm not aware of any specific cases where the feeding pattern of animals other then humans follow a distinct pattern, in contrast to a constant, stochastic or mainly opportunistic search for food.

In the case of humans there is probably a very strong cultural cause for our very distinct feeding pattern, but that is not necessarily to say that these patterns only can occur in species with a highly developed culture.

How does the scientific body of observations look like here? Is there any research or empirical observations about the feeding pattern of animals?

For example, I would of the top of my head assume that some common reasons for these patterns to develop could be connected to e.g. the 24h circadian rhythm, dependencies to availability of food, or internal dependencies on behavioural organization in social species.

Of course it's likely that many organisms do not have the luxury of spending a significant time on other activities then acquiring food, but nevertheless we can see that some animals have evolved into a situation where they don't have to constantly be in the search for food, but instead can spend time on other activities increasing their fitness, like engaging in social interactions, searching for and seducing sexual mates, exploring their environment and migrating, building nests and so on.

To clarify what kind of observations I'm imagining could happen, take these speculative examples:

Some species of birds have a significantly higher feeding activity in the morning, where they after a night of inactivity have depleted their daily energy resource and when the insects, their main source of food, starts to activate after a cold night and are still cold and slower/easier prey. After this the birds only have an opportunistic approach to feeding which is enough to satisfy their energy need, and they spend more energy on pruning, calling for potential mates and engaging in territorial battles.

Many primates engage in collective feeding sessions where they as a group travel to a known area rich with food where they spend a couple of hours before they retreat back to a different location for socializing and digesting the food. One reason for this behaviour can be that there is a high risk of predation at these food-rich areas, as the predators learn that these places are frequently visited by prey.

Feline predators on the savannah are usually concentrating their hunting in the night as the darkness gives them an advantage of stealth and surprise. This is why they in daytime instead spend a considerable amount of time on resting, engaging in activities regarding social hierarchies, order and bonding with the pride, while most often only opportunistically engaging in hunting.

Do we have a body of knowledge here?

While it would be close to hand to start trying making lists of observations like this, which certainly would be interesting in itself, the intention of this question is to get a good overview on the subject. Are patterns like these common or uncommon? In the cases where they are found, what are the common factors and what can be identified as the underlying causes?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what you're asking here. Wild animals eat when they can secure food. Most of the time, the food supply is limited enough that they don't have the option of "breakfast, lunch and diner"; in that case, the predator population would increase to the point of making the prey relatively scarce once more. Many herbivorous animals spend most of their awake time eating (or traveling to where food can be found). Are Jane Goodall's decades in the Gombe Stream National Park empirical evidence? I'm just unsure of what you want here. $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2014 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse Yes, I know that this is the common view on animal feeding: They eat when they can. But I think that this is a too simplified view, and sometimes just wrong. Animals have to do other things than eating, like seducing potential mates (which can be a quite big thing, including very expensive fights), resting and sleeping, engage in social activities like play and bonding and so forth. And even when it comes to feeding, when looking at the big predators we know for sure that they can sustain quite a while on a big meal, leaving time to do other things. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Dec 31, 2014 at 4:05
  • $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse So what I'm looking for is cases when we have a distinct daily feeding patterns in animals, like in the cases of humans and our breakfast, lunch and dinner, or something similar. Observations from Jane Goodall would surely be considered empirical data, if not evidence. And on noting that, great apes would probably be good candidates that might have developed distinct feeding patterns I assume since they are very social. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Dec 31, 2014 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse Your reference to climate change denials seems a little strange, maybe we misunderstood each others somewhere. What I meant was that it's clearly the case that many animals do other things than search for food, thus leaving the possibility that there in some cases might be the case that some animals develop an daily schedule or pattern in their feeding habits. Cases like that would be what I'm looking for here. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Dec 31, 2014 at 4:23
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    $\begingroup$ Since it apparently was unclear enough to have it temporarily put on hold, I have now rewritten the question for extra clarity. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Jan 1, 2015 at 3:44

2 Answers 2


As already mentioned many animals have distinct feeding pattern due to resource limitation or availability.

For example some fishes feed predominantly at high tide because that's the only time they have access to abundant food resources (e.g., Weisberg, S.B., Whalen, R. and Lotrich, V.A., 1981. Tidal and diurnal influence on food consumption of a salt marsh killifish Fundulus heteroclitus. Marine Biology, 61(2), pp.243-246.). The behavior is so strong that it alters the normal diel behavior pattern because tides are determined primarily by lunar patterns and altered by geography. So a normally nocturnal fish might become active during the day in order to feed. This means that the fish would feed at specific times of the day, although the time would change daily.

The advent of farming may have influenced this by creating abundant food that could be consumed on a regular basis (in morning after waking, in afternoon as hunger increased due to activity, and in evening before sleeping). Otherwise food acquisition would be dependent on availability, you eat when you can not when you want/need.



This is a very interesting question one which I don't immediately know an answer to. I think this overly succinct answer and the fact nobody else has answered highlights the degree to which the age old darwinian assumptions play a role in the field.

Zoological POV

I'm not an expert in this area so I went to a zoology lab technician and this is what they had to say (I'm paraphrasing here):

Most animals are opportunistic and can't afford the luxury of a late brunch... The only animals that spring to mind that appear to 'plan' for meals are the hoarders (squirrels for example). But they don't typically cache food in the same way we would for a weekly shop, but do so for fear of food scarcity (overwintering, rival competition); Not unlike the mad dash for bread and loo roll when it starts snowing slightly!

Maybe animals do have their diet set to a circadian rhythm, or maybe not. We can't say for sure. Darwin implied, even a peaceful meadow is full of starving ravenous animals clinging to survival. There is no real time for luxury. If food is there, they eat it. Many animals don't even get full the same way we do.

Scarcity of Literature

The problem lies in that there is no body of literature around animal eating times since animals seldom have enough food in their natural environment to monitor any regularity. If you want specific questions on a particular species for optimum feeding times, I would recommend opening another question as lab animals do have recommended diets. Many predators have optimum hunting times (for example nocturnal, or dusk). However one could argue this is to do with success rates/effective hunting strategy and not necessarily scheduled eating times.

  • $\begingroup$ In reading the reaction from your lab technician I'm thinking that maybe it was a bad choice of me to make a comparison with our human pattern in this question, risking the appearance of someone trying to apply human attributes to animals, and in putting focus on whether animals consciously "plan" their daily food intake accordingly to their personal preferences. I appreciate your answer even if it did not provide deeper insight, and I take the opportunity to once again suggest that food is a very important resource, but for some "lucky" species maybe not the only one worth spending time on. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Jan 8, 2015 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ And maybe one thing to consider here could be the possibility that in some cases for some species, focused and active search for food is much more efficient than a purely opportunistic approach. Thus again opening up the possibility for well partitioned activities and patterns therein, I presume. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Jan 8, 2015 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Amended my question to highlight the scarcity of literature. As it stands, the question requires very specific knowledge over a vast range of zoological niches. If you need a specific species dietary requirements, I would ask in a separate question. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jan 8, 2015 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ Of course there are nocturnal and diurnal feeders. Insectivorous bats get active during the dusk (as I have observed) but are not so active later in the night (perhaps because of fall in temperature and low insect activity). $\endgroup$
    Jan 8, 2015 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @GoodGravy Nope. I have not really studied animal behavior. But I had heard some talk about two kinds of feeding behavior- one is, as discussed in comments and your answer, the opportunistic: eat as much as you can when you have the chance. Other one is to have a fixed eating pattern (no overeating) and big herbivores like elephants do that; the term that the speaker used for this is "metabolically regulated" (if I am not mistaken). This I heard some 3 years back and I didn't read up much on it later. $\endgroup$
    Jan 8, 2015 at 16:47

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