Communication and collective movement in animal societies

Communication and collective movement in animal societies

In animals that move together as a group, such as bird flocks and fish schools, complex and coordinated movement can emerge if individuals follow surprisingly simple rules. However, for many animal species, particularly those that live in stable social groups, the decisions individuals make may also be shaped by the long-term social relationships between individuals, and by the communication strategies they employ. I am interested in how both acoustic communication and social relationships affect the movement decisions of individuals and the resulting movement dynamics of entire groups. To address these questions, my collaborators and I are using GPS and acoustic loggers to collect fine-scale data on where animal go and the vocalizations that they make as they move. Combining these data with mathematical modeling, we hope to reveal the factors that govern individual movement decisions, and ultimately to understand how they scale up to produce the patterns of collective movement we see in nature. Information on my two main projects is below:

 Long-distance communication and coordination in spotted hyenas

Six days of GPS data (each color represents a different day) for a single spotted hyena in the Masai Mara. The picture at top left shows a hyena wearing a collar that logs its position and records its vocalizations. The image at the bottom right is a spectrogram of a long-distance recruitment call given by a hyena.

Spotted hyenas live in fission-fusion societies, where clan members move alone or in small subgroups that split and merge over time. Despite being widely dispersed over several kilometers, hyenas can come together rapidly for collective defense of prey items against lions, or in conflicts with neighboring clans, via long-distance recruitment calls known as "whoops". In this work, my collaborators and I are investigating how communication and coordination interact in these dispersed animal societies, using collars that simultaneously track the positions, vocalizations, and activity patterns of hyenas within a clan. We are interested in how information is transmitted over long distances in these groups, how hyenas decide whether or not to respond to recruitment calls, and how such communication impacts their long-term movement dynamics. We have just completed a pilot stage of this project, where we collared 6 hyenas, and we hope to expand on this work in the future!

 This work is funded by BEACON: An NSF Center for the Study of Evolution in Action and The Carlsberg Foundation.

Communication and collective movement in meerkat groups

Meerkats live in stable groups that remain together as they forage over relatively large distances, using vocalizations to help coordinate movement. Using small GPS and acoustic tags, we plan to collect data on the fine-scale movements and vocalizations of all individuals within meerkat groups. We will then use these data to explore how meerkats’ calls allow them to coordinate movement, whether certain individuals have disproportionate influence over group decisions, and whether the combination of communication and movement rules may enable them to achieve better foraging success.

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