When an animal settles preferentially in a habitat within which it does poorly relative to other available habitats, it is said to have been caught in an “ecological trap.” Although the theoretical possibility that animals may be so trapped is widely recognized, the absence of a clear mechanistic understanding of what constitutes a trap means that much of the literature cited as support for the idea may be weak, at best. Here, we develop a conceptual model to explain how an ecological trap might work, outline the specific criteria that are necessary for demonstrating the existence of an ecological trap, and provide tools for researchers to use in detecting ecological traps. We then review the existing literature and summarize the state of empirical evidence for the existence of traps. Our conceptual model suggests that there are two basic kinds of ecological traps and three mechanisms by which traps may be created. To this point in time, there are still only a few solid empirical examples of ecological traps in the published literature (although those few examples suggest that both types of traps and all three of the predicted mechanisms do exist in nature). Therefore, ecological traps are either rare in nature, are difficult to detect, or both. An improved library of empirical studies will be essential if we are to develop a more synthetic understanding of the mechanisms that can trigger maladaptive behavior in general and the specific conditions under which ecological traps might occur.
Copyright 2006 by the Ecological Society of America. Bruce A. Robertson and Richard L. Hutto 2006. A FRAMEWORK FOR UNDERSTANDING ECOLOGICAL TRAPS AND AN EVALUATION OF EXISTING EVIDENCE. Ecology 87:1075–1085. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/0012-9658(2006)87[1075:AFFUET]2.0.CO;2.