Sunday, 4 October 2015

Mimicry helps sheep solve a dilemma

Date: October 2, 2015

Source: CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange)

Imitation behaviors play a key role in many collective phenomena seen in animals. An analysis of the collective movements of grazing sheep has revealed that sheep alternate slow dispersion phases with very fast regrouping, in which they imitate the behavior of their neighbors. This study, conducted by researchers from the CNRS, CEA, and the Universities of Aberdeen, Nice Sophia Antipolis and Toulouse III -- Paul Sabatier, was published on September 28, 2015 in the journal PNAS. It shows that the intensity with which the sheep mimic one another plays a crucial role in the ability of a herd to maximize the grazing area explored while minimizing the time needed to regroup when faced with potential dangers.

Many animal species live in groups, such as shoals of fish and herds of animals. This lifestyle offers many benefits to individuals by increasing protection against predator attacks. It can also sometimes vastly improve the efficiency of foraging for food. In these groups of animals, imitation behaviors are the cornerstone of many collective phenomena. However, individuals do not imitate one another constantly or at the same intensity over time, which has the effect of increasing the complexity of collective behaviors. Group behaviors are determined by the importance with which each animal treats the behavior of its neighbors relative to its own motivations. Knowing how these two types of influences combine to determine the decisions of each individual within a group is crucial for understanding the complex dynamics of many collective phenomena, not only in animals but also in humans.

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