Which animal would use Facebook most, if it could?
My poll in class last week was a popular one – a fact that I couldn’t properly enjoy, since Charlie came up with it for me in a fit of brain-dead incapacity. Charlie’s Facebook question elicited chirps of excitement, compliments and even a few drawings on the response sheets. Here are the results, ranked by favour among the students:
- Chimpanzees: So they have opposable thumbs, and can “use the spacebar” (is this actually important in Facebook?). A number of students gave bonobos special mention, since they would probably want to keep track of all their casual sexual relationships.
- Dolphins: Highly intelligent, social, and they might also be interested in monitoring multiple sexual conquests. Dolphins and migratory whales could use Facebook to keep in touch while roaming widely over the oceans – the long-distance relationships of the animal kingdom. For some reason, students in different tutorial groups who chose dolphins were inspired to draw them for me as well. Coincidence?
- Parrots and other birds: Especially in species that have high levels of extra-pair paternity, birds could use Facebook as a form of mate-guarding to keep tabs on their social partner1,2. There are other reasons to think that songbirds might easily make the transition to internet gossip. Female black-capped chickadees, for instance, eavesdrop on the outcome of song contests between rival males, and use this information when deciding on a mate3.
- Eusocial animals: Like ants or naked mole rats (the only known eusocial mammal). A couple of students also mentioned highly social meerkats, since living in groups of 10-40 individuals would require them to keep track of a lot of social information.
- Other yappy follower-types: hyenas, seals, lemmings, and Yorkshire terriers all got a mention.
Charlie and I discussed it over dinner at the Iron Duke. My first thought went to ants, for their extreme group lifestyle. The problem is that ants don’t really care about what other ants do or think about each other. Insect sociality is all about the greater good: worker ants toil away for the colony despite having no hope of reproducing on their own. Ok, so maybe the internet isn’t conducive to real reproduction either, but ants just don’t have the ego required. Plus, as one clever student pointed out, a colony of eusocial animals are all very close genetic relatives of one another – and she tends to block family members from Facebook.
Charlie mentioned peacocks for spending so much time on courtship and preening, but I rejected that one too.
Peacocks seem pretty vain, and they definitely care about what others (especially hens) think. But their efforts are too direct. These birds get things done, or they die trying. Unlike internet socializing, the hours whiled away on a lek require a massive investment of physical energy – even if the two are roughly equal in terms of futility.
I thought he was on to something with birds, though – they tend to be social and are good at pressing buttons, as this video demonstrates. What about domestic chickens? Lots of mindless clucking and repetitive behaviour, even to the point of self-harm. Or hummingbirds, the addicts of the avian world, flitting from one nectar source to another like so many web pages.
Birds are deft navigators of the social environment. Head outside at 6 am in May and you’ll encounter nature’s most conspicuous social network: the dawn chorus4. Researchers at Queen’s University have shown, for example, that male black-capped chickadees interact with multiple neighbours during the dawn chorus, matching and overlapping each others’ songs far more often than would be expected by chance alone5. Networking can make a real difference in the life of a bird, too. Take the long-tailed manakins of Costa Rica. If you are a young male, being a central node in the network of male social interactions improves your odds of rising to alpha-male status – and only alphas have a shot at mating with females (video of a dancing alpha-beta male pair)6.
First, starlings are just as good at learning how to peck keys as other birds; we have a long tradition of training them for psychology experiments where they learn to press certain buttons, depending on the stimuli they see on a screen.
Second, much like Facebook users, there are a lot of them. Starlings are everywhere. They were originally distributed in Europe, Asia and Northern Africa, but large populations also thrive in North America, Australia, South Africa and pretty much every other place that western European people colonized. Truly, these are rats of the sky. From just 100 birds released in Central Park in 1890, the North American population inflated to over 200 milllion, a considerable nuisance. Like us, starlings do well in cities and places where industrial-scale agriculture can support their overpopulated flocks.
This brings me to the most important way that starlings are like Facebook users: their massive, wheeling flocks.
Take a look at some of videos of this incredible phenomenon – more accurately described as swarming: a good one from Crewe, in England; another from Rome, and a night in Sacramento in December 2009 that caused a sensation (e.g., this news report has the Sacramento starling swarms set to some eerie music).
This is collective behaviour: an organization that emerges from the interactions of many individuals, without any central control. When individuals in a social group follow one another and copy their neighbours, a tightly-coordinated swarm emerges as a result.
Scientists have applied computer models of typical starling aerial movements, like banking, climbing and rolling, to show how these flock dynamics work. Their results demonstrate that simple rules of copying can produce patterns that look a lot like what we see in real starling swarms7,8,9.
And, similar to Facebook connections, interactions in a starling flock go beyond mere physical proximity. The birds base their movements on a group of specific, linked individuals in the network, rather than simply copying those within a given distance in the flock8.
The most recent models suggest that starlings in a swarm might be influenced, to some extent, by all of the other birds in the flock network9. These animals are more adept at social networking than your average Facebook user can imagine, and researchers still have no idea how the birds achieve the near-instantaneous signal processing that swarming behaviour seems to require10.
So why do starlings do it? It’s thought that most animals flock to share information11, gaining benefits in terms of increased ability to find food and avoid predators in a group. The flow of information via online social networks has a lot in common with this. Whether it’s Lolcats or Gordon Pinsent reading Justin Bieber, surges of internet popularity are also the result of copying in a network. And like the wheeling turns of a flock of starlings, internet pop culture takes off in some pretty inexplicable directions.
The birds tend to land in a fairly predictable location, since swarming is done as an evening ritual to choose the the group roosting site by consensus7. This points to yet another similarity: these birds had a networking habit way before Facebook got in on the game.
- Petrie, M. and Kempenaers, B. 1998. TREE 13: 52-58.
- Moller, A. P. and Birkhead, T. R. 1991. Behaviour 118: 170-186.
- Mennill, D. J. et al. 2002. Science 296: 873.
- Burt, J. M. and Vehrencamp, S. L. 2005. Animal Communication Networks. Cambridge University Press.
- Foote, J. R. et al. 2008. Behavioral Ecology 19: 1192-1199.
- MacDonald, D. B. 2007. PNAS 104: 10910-10914.
- Hildenbrandt, H. et al. 2010. Behavioral Ecology 21: 1349-1359.
- Ballerini, M. et al. 2008. PNAS 105: 1232-1237.
- Cavagna, A. et al. 2010. PNAS 107: 11865-11870.
- Kelm, B. 2010. Wired Science. 16 June 2010.
- Clark, C. W. and Mangel, M. 1984. American Naturalist 123: 626-641.