Because of environmental heterogeneity, individuals face alternatives with different fitness outcomes. When confronted with multiple alternative situations, individuals eventually select one of them, and are said to perform a choice or prefer one option when the probability to choose this option is significantly higher than expected by chance, and is affected by the variation in the expected fitness among potential alternatives. In the classic expression 'habitat selection' (synonym of 'habitat choice'), the term 'selection' describes a process of individual choice using some decision rule (despite implying no conscious mechanism), which includes the processes of information acquisition about the quality of alternative habitats or patches, and information use to select the alternative expected to maximize fitness.
Because of competition, all individuals may however not be able to settle in the highest-quality, preferred habitat or patch, that is, the realized choice may not reflect individual's preference. This may be because individuals are prevented from choosing a habitat or patch by dominant competitors despite attempting to do so, or because individuals evaluate competition intensity beforehand and choose not to use these best habitats or patches. Furthermore, individuals may use different strategies than optimal habitat or patch choice, that is, choose a suboptimal patch but compensate for the decrease in fitness using other strategies. For instance, individuals may choose to exploit different food sources, or adopt strategies limiting risks, rather than changing patch.
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