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Effective leadership and decision-making in animal groups on the move

Naturevolume 433pages513516 (2005) | Download Citation



For animals that forage or travel in groups, making movement decisions often depends on social interactions among group members1,2. However, in many cases, few individuals have pertinent information, such as knowledge about the location of a food source3,4, or of a migration route5,6,7,8,9. Using a simple model we show how information can be transferred within groups both without signalling and when group members do not know which individuals, if any, have information. We reveal that the larger the group the smaller the proportion of informed individuals needed to guide the group, and that only a very small proportion of informed individuals is required to achieve great accuracy. We also demonstrate how groups can make consensus decisions, even though informed individuals do not know whether they are in a majority or minority, how the quality of their information compares with that of others, or even whether there are any other informed individuals. Our model provides new insights into the mechanisms of effective leadership and decision-making in biological systems.

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I.D.C. thanks the Pew Charitable Trusts, the NSF and the EPSRC for their support. I.D.C. and J.K. acknowledge an EPSRC grant and are also grateful for fellowships at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, University of Bielefeld, where we had the opportunity to develop this research. S.A.L. acknowledges support from the NSF and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and N.R.F. from the EPSRC and the BBSRC. I.D.C. thanks Balliol College for support and S. Pratt, D. Rubenstein, D. James and A. Ward for their input.

Author information


  1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, 08544, USA

    • Iain D. Couzin
    •  & Simon A. Levin
  2. Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, OX1 3PS, Oxford, UK

    • Iain D. Couzin
  3. Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, School of Biology, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT, Leeds, UK

    • Jens Krause
  4. Centre for Behavioural Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, BS8 1UG, Bristol, UK

    • Nigel R. Franks


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Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Iain D. Couzin.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Figure 1

    This figure shows the influence of imperfect information on the relationship between weighting ω and the accuracy of groups and the proportion of groups that split (a), and the proportion of informed individuals p and accuracy and proportion of splitting (b). (DOC 156 kb)

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