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The effective collective: Grouping could ensure animals find their way in a changing environment
Date:1/31/2013

For social animals such as schooling fish, the loss of their numbers to human activity could eventually threaten entire populations, according to a finding that such animals rely heavily on grouping to effectively navigate their environment.

Princeton University researchers report in the journal Science that collective intelligence is vital to certain animals' ability to evaluate and respond to their environment. Conducted on fish, the research demonstrated that small groups and individuals become disoriented in complex, changing environments. However, as group size is increased, the fish suddenly became highly responsive to their surroundings.

These results should prompt a close examination of how endangered group or herd animals are preserved and managed, said senior researcher Iain Couzin, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. If wild animals depend on collective intelligence for migration, breeding and locating essential resources, they could be imperiled by any activity that diminishes or divides the group, such as overhunting and habitat loss, he explained.

"Processes that increase group fragmentation or reduce population density may initially appear to have little influence, yet a further reduction in group size may suddenly and dramatically impact the capacity of a species to respond effectively to their environment," Couzin said. "If the mechanism we observed is found to be widespread, then we need to be aware of tipping points that could result in the sudden collapse of migratory species."

The work is among the first to experimentally explain the extent to which collective intelligence improves awareness of complex environments, the researchers write. Collective intelligence is an established advantage of groups, including humans. As it's understood, a group of individuals gain an advantage by pooling imperfect estimates with those around them, which more or less "averages" single experi
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Contact: Morgan Kelly
mgnkelly@princeton.edu
609-258-5729
Princeton University
Source:Eurekalert

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