Birds that lead a social group learn faster than their followers, although the leaders might not start out as the best decision-makers.

Credit: Zsuzsa Ákos

Benjamin Pettit and Dora Biro at the University of Oxford, UK, and their colleagues tracked the behaviour of 40 homing pigeons (pictured) as the birds navigated various routes, both individually and as a flock. They found that birds that later assumed leadership of flocks had been the fastest fliers on previous solo flights, but had not necessarily navigated the shortest and most energy-efficient routes. On later solo flights, leaders learned to navigate along direct routes more quickly than followers did. The team suggests that, among pigeons at least, leadership is based on pre-existing individual differences rather than on social preferences or optimal group decision-making.

Curr. Biol. (2015)