Modeling Shows How Social Networks Help Animals Survive

By Mike Gil

Applications like Facebook and Twitter show us, on a daily basis, the power of social networks to influence individual behavior. While wild animals do not surf the web, they are connected with other individuals in shared landscapes, and “share information” through their behavior. But how does this information affect surrounding animals?

The formation of multi-species groups, such as these fish feeding on a coral reef, may be fostered by information sharing. (Heather Hillard)

The formation of multi-species groups, such as these fish feeding on a coral reef, may be fostered by social information sharing. (Heather Hillard)

A new study, published in the scientific journal The American Naturalist Dec. 29, reveals that the information shared through animal social networks can provide profound fitness advantages to various animals across a range of environments. Using mathematical simulations, Mike Gil, of the University of California, Davis, and co-authors Zachary Emberts, Harrison Jones, and Colette St. Mary, of the University of Florida, show that these advantages arise because information, generated incidentally or intentionally, from the actions of an individual provides others with insights on how to survive in often unforgiving natural settings.

For example, an animal fleeing from a predator or chomping away at a patch of food can alert similar animals in the vicinity of a shared threat or opportunity.

The researchers further found that information sharing among animals promotes animal group formation, but often favors the formation of mixed-species groups, in which members overlap less in the kind of food they eat but still share predators. These findings point to information sharing as a fundamental driver of animal group formation, shedding new light on the age-old question of why animal groups are so common in nature.

Mike Gil is a postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis studying coral reefs. Follow his scientific adventures at sciall.org

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