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26 September 2016

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Flock Favours Collective Wisdom

New research from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology suggests pigeons can over-rule incompetent leaders.

Research conducted by the Oxford Navigation Group, part of the Department of Zoology, suggests that incorrect directional information from a flock leader among homing pigeons can lead to them being over-ruled by the collective knowledge of the flock.

In a study published by the Royal Society journal ‘Biology Letters’, eight flocks of five birds were tracked using GPS “backpacks”. Using a method called ‘clock-shifting’ the research team were able to misinform the birds’ sense of direction and record the impact on the flocks’ leadership hierarchy.

The research hoped to uncover whether the hierarchical nature of homing pigeon flocks’ navigational decision-making was absolute or whether a ‘bad’ leader could be ignored, over-ruled or even replaced.

The eight groups were each tested under two different conditions, either with every bird in the flock being clock-shifted, or only the leader affected. The results, based on the relative movements of each bird within the flock recorded by the GPS tracking devices, showed that when only the leaders were misinformed, they dropped in the hierarchy and lost their influence over the flock’s direction.

St Hugh’s Fellow Professor Dora Biro, who co-authored the study with doctoral candidate Isobel Watts, thus suggests that despite homing pigeon flocks having fairly stable hierarchical structures, they can also demonstrate flexibility in circumstances where following a misinformed leader would harm the whole group.

The findings build on earlier research published by Professor Biro with the Department of Zoology, which found that collective decision-making in animals can function through both compromise and leadership, and typically improves overall navigational decisions in species that travel together in groups.

You can read the published article on the research here.

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