New research explores how pigeons make joint navigational decisions when travelling together

November 7, 2006
A pigeon in flight. Credit: Robin Freeman.
A pigeon in flight. Credit: Robin Freeman.

The issue of how animals make navigational decisions, when travelling in a group, has been examined by a group of researchers from Oxford's Department of Zoology. The research team used miniature GPS tracking to follow the homing flights of pairs of pigeons, where the two birds had different preferred routes back to their loft.

In their report ‘From compromise to leadership in pigeon homing’, published in Current Biology on 7 November, researchers found that if two birds had only slight differences over the route to take, they compromised and took the middle way. If, however, the difference of opinion was considerable one of the birds became the leader, or the pair split. Pairs were found to outperform single birds, even though the more efficient bird did not necessarily assume the role of leader.

Modelling paired decision-making showed that both outcomes – compromise and leadership – could emerge from the same set of behavioural rules followed by each of the birds. In the context of mass migration of birds or other animals, the results suggest that simple self-organising rules can improve the accuracy of decision-making and thereby benefit individuals travelling in groups.

Lead author Dr Dora Biro, from the Zoology Department, said: ‘There is little empirical evidence exploring the degree to which animals in groups rely on just one or a few leaders to make decisions for them, or whether everyone’s opinion is taken into account for a group-wide compromise. Our study examined this in the context of group navigation. Our results showed that the two possibilities can in fact be seen as different outcomes of the same decision-making process, depending only on the degree of conflict between individuals. The same principles can potentially be applied to many different species of social animals, and to decision-making in a variety of contexts.’

Source: University of Oxford

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