Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Uncovering hidden intelligence of collectives


Research team including scientists from Konstanz discovers that information processing in animal groups occurs not only in the brains of animals but also in their social network

In a group of animals, who deals with new information coming from the environment? Researchers have discovered that the answer lies not in who, but in where: information can be processed, not only by individual animals, but also in the invisible connections between them.

Scientists provide evidence of information processing occurring in the physical structure of animal groups.

Bild: Colin Twomey

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of scientists provides evidence of information processing occurring in the physical structure of animal groups.

The study demonstrates that animals can encode information about their environment in the architecture of their groups and provides rare insight into how animal collectives are able to behaviourally adapt to a changing world.

For behaviour to be of any use, it needs to be modulated according to what’s happening in the world around us. We see this in ourselves when we respond to a sudden noise: in a crowded street in broad daylight we might not notice the noise; but in an unfamiliar alley in darkness it might send our hearts racing.

This context-dependent modification of behaviour – known as behavioural plasticity – has been very well studied in individual animals. What is much less known is how the process occurs in animal groups.

“When we start looking at how groups respond to their environment, it introduces a possibility that does not exist when you look at individual animals,” says senior author Iain Couzin who leads the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz, one of the University of Konstanz’ Clusters of Excellence, and the Department of Collective Behaviour at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz.

“When you form groups, you suddenly have a network system where social interactions exist, and we wondered whether this invisible architecture was in fact contributing to how groups can respond to changes in the environment.”

The researchers focused on two possible mechanisms that could contribute to groups’ changing responsiveness: 1) changes in the sensitivity of individuals and 2) changes in the connections between them. They examined how groups of juvenile golden shiner fish (Notemigonus crysoleucas) respond to danger in the environment.

“Danger is one of the most important things that animals need to respond to if they are to survive,” says Couzin. Researchers were able to manipulate groups’ perception of danger by introducing a substance called schreckstoff – a chemical cocktail released from the skin of fish after injury – into the water. Sensing the chemical, fish perceive the risk of a predator nearby, and thereby display alarm behaviour known as “startle” events.

The researchers found that indeed, groups startled more frequently and many more fish participated in startle events when fish perceived greater risk in the environment. However, they found that the increased startle rates were not because individual fish were more sensitive to sensory cues.

Rather, it was the physical structure of the group – how the individuals are positioned with respect to one another and how far apart they are – that was the best predictor of a startle event. In other words, by changing the structure of the group, by coming closer together, the strength of the social connectivity among the individuals increased – allowing them to respond effectively and rapidly to changes in their environment, as a collective.

“Making each individual more sensitive to risk can lead to an excessive number of false alarms propagating through the group,” says Couzin. “On the other hand, strengthening social connections allows individuals to amplify information about risk, but buffers against the system becoming overly sensitive.”

The researchers believe that the results can lead to important insights into the relationships between structure of social networks and how to effectively process information. Such results could benefit the development of new technologies for efficiently solving problems through collective intelligence, such as networked robots.

Says Couzin: “We have traditionally assumed that intelligence resides in our brains, in the individual animal. But we have found the first evidence that intelligence can also be encoded in the hidden network of communication between us.”

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Prof. Dr. Iain Couzin, University of Konstanz and Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz.


The paper, “Individual and collective encoding of risk in animal groups,” by Matthew M.G. Sosna, Colin R. Twomey, Joseph Bak-Coleman, Winnie Poel, Bryan C. Daniels, Pawel Romanczuk and Iain D. Couzin, will be published in the week of Sept. 23 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Julia Wandt | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht New deep-water coral discovered
22.10.2019 | Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

nachricht DNA-reeling bacteria yield new insight on how superbugs acquire drug-resistance
22.10.2019 | Indiana University

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A cavity leads to a strong interaction between light and matter

Researchers have succeeded in creating an efficient quantum-mechanical light-matter interface using a microscopic cavity. Within this cavity, a single photon is emitted and absorbed up to 10 times by an artificial atom. This opens up new prospects for quantum technology, report physicists at the University of Basel and Ruhr-University Bochum in the journal Nature.

Quantum physics describes photons as light particles. Achieving an interaction between a single photon and a single atom is a huge challenge due to the tiny...

Im Focus: Solving the mystery of quantum light in thin layers

A very special kind of light is emitted by tungsten diselenide layers. The reason for this has been unclear. Now an explanation has been found at TU Wien (Vienna)

It is an exotic phenomenon that nobody was able to explain for years: when energy is supplied to a thin layer of the material tungsten diselenide, it begins to...

Im Focus: An ultrafast glimpse of the photochemistry of the atmosphere

Researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have explored the initial consequences of the interaction of light with molecules on the surface of nanoscopic aerosols.

The nanocosmos is constantly in motion. All natural processes are ultimately determined by the interplay between radiation and matter. Light strikes particles...

Im Focus: Shaping nanoparticles for improved quantum information technology

Particles that are mere nanometers in size are at the forefront of scientific research today. They come in many different shapes: rods, spheres, cubes, vesicles, S-shaped worms and even donut-like rings. What makes them worthy of scientific study is that, being so tiny, they exhibit quantum mechanical properties not possible with larger objects.

Researchers at the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE's Argonne National...

Im Focus: Novel Material for Shipbuilding

A new research project at the TH Mittelhessen focusses on the development of a novel light weight design concept for leisure boats and yachts. Professor Stephan Marzi from the THM Institute of Mechanics and Materials collaborates with Krake Catamarane, which is a shipyard located in Apolda, Thuringia.

The project is set up in an international cooperation with Professor Anders Biel from Karlstad University in Sweden and the Swedish company Lamera from...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

International Symposium on Functional Materials for Electrolysis, Fuel Cells and Metal-Air Batteries

02.10.2019 | Event News

NEXUS 2020: Relationships Between Architecture and Mathematics

02.10.2019 | Event News

Optical Technologies: International Symposium „Future Optics“ in Hannover

19.09.2019 | Event News

Latest News

New deep-water coral discovered

22.10.2019 | Life Sciences

DNA-reeling bacteria yield new insight on how superbugs acquire drug-resistance

22.10.2019 | Life Sciences

Heat Pumps with Climate-Friendly Refrigerant Developed for Indoor Installation

22.10.2019 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>