“Social information on fear and food drives animal grouping and fitness”

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Michael A. Gil, Zachary Emberts, Harrison Jones, and Colette M. St. Mary

Many animals likely depend on social networks to survive

The formation of multi-species groups such as those commonly found in coral reefs may be fostered by information sharing. Pictured are the parrotfish Scarus rivulatus (foreground) and the rabbitfish Siganus guttatus (background), both roving herbivores.
(Credit: Heather Hillard)

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?

A new study appearing in The American Naturalist 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. Read the Article