Dynamics of flocking in birds: the role of individual recognition and social learning

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Steve Portugal

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Elli Leadbeater

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

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Project Description:

Many birds travel in flocks comprising many individuals. During flights, decisions have to be made about who leads and follows, who is positioned where in the flock, and who you want to be flying beside. In bird flocks, these decisions have to be made rapidly during flight. This project aims to (a) investigate the roles that individual personality traits and morphological/physiological parameters play in determining flock behaviour and flock positioning, (b) understand how individuals recognise one another and make decisions about whom to position themselves with, and (c) determine whether individuals extract more information and learn socially from preferred individuals within a flock.

This inter-displinary project will use free-flying captive homing pigeons (Columba livia) and southern bald ibis (Geronticus calvus) to address these three key questions. Key methodological approaches will involve the use of accelerometer and GPS loggers, construction of social networks, personality testing, social learning trials, respirometry, and designing experiments to test and manipulate individual recognition and appearance. The project involves working extensively with live birds, suiting someone interested in designing novel experiments for individual recognition using innovative digital approaches, and working with large data sets. The PhD would likely involve fieldwork in Europe, and collaborating with zoological collections and conservation organisations.

Policy Impact of Research:

We aim to understand how individuals within a dynamic group recognise and react to flock members, and how they learn from one another. Understanding how large flocks are organised has implications for robotics, artificial intelligence and UAV optimisation, while also having benefits for understanding avian collisions with man-made structures.

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