Sunday 29 September 2019

Uncovering hidden intelligence of collectives

Date:  September 23, 2019
Source:  University of Konstanz

In a group of animals, who deals with new information coming from the environment? Researchers have discovered that the answer lies not in who, but in where: information can be processed, not only by individual animals, but also in the invisible connections between them. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of scientists provides evidence of information processing occurring in the physical structure of animal groups. The study demonstrates that animals can encode information about their environment in the architecture of their groups and provides rare insight into how animal collectives are able to behaviourally adapt to a changing world.
For behaviour to be of any use, it needs to be modulated according to what's happening in the world around us. We see this in ourselves when we respond to a sudden noise: in a crowded street in broad daylight we might not notice the noise; but in an unfamiliar alley in darkness it might send our hearts racing. This context-dependent modification of behaviour -- known as behavioural plasticity -- has been very well studied in individual animals. What is much less known is how the process occurs in animal groups.
"When we start looking at how groups respond to their environment, it introduces a possibility that does not exist when you look at individual animals," says senior author Iain Couzin who leads the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz, one of the University of Konstanz' Clusters of Excellence, and the Department of Collective Behaviour at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz. "When you form groups, you suddenly have a network system where social interactions exist, and we wondered whether this invisible architecture was in fact contributing to how groups can respond to changes in the environment."

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