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Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks


Animals that travel together in groups display a variety of fascinating motion patterns thought to be the result of delicate local interactions among group members1,2,3. Although the most informative way of investigating and interpreting collective movement phenomena would be afforded by the collection of high-resolution spatiotemporal data from moving individuals, such data are scarce4,5,6,7 and are virtually non-existent for long-distance group motion within a natural setting because of the associated technological difficulties8. Here we present results of experiments in which track logs of homing pigeons flying in flocks of up to 10 individuals have been obtained by high-resolution lightweight GPS devices and analysed using a variety of correlation functions inspired by approaches common in statistical physics. We find a well-defined hierarchy among flock members from data concerning leading roles in pairwise interactions, defined on the basis of characteristic delay times between birds’ directional choices. The average spatial position of a pigeon within the flock strongly correlates with its place in the hierarchy, and birds respond more quickly to conspecifics perceived primarily through the left eye—both results revealing differential roles for birds that assume different positions with respect to flock-mates. From an evolutionary perspective, our results suggest that hierarchical organization of group flight may be more efficient than an egalitarian one, at least for those flock sizes that permit regular pairwise interactions among group members, during which leader–follower relationships are consistently manifested.

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Figure 1: Summary of directional correlation function analysis for determining leader–follower relationships within a flock.
Figure 2: Hierarchical leadership network generated for a single flock flight.
Figure 3: Hierarchical leadership network generated from multiple flock flights.


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We thank the Hungarian Racing Pigeon Sports Federation—in particular I. Bárdos—for support. We are grateful to J. Pató for allowing his pigeons to participate in the present research, and for his technical help throughout the experiments. This research was partially supported by the EU ERC COLLMOT and the EU FP6 STARFLAG projects. D.B. was supported by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and by Somerville College, Oxford.

Author Contributions Zs.A. and T.V. designed the experiments; Zs.A. and M.N. performed the experiments; M.N. and D.B. designed the evaluation of data; M.N. performed the analysis and the visualization of data; and D.B. and T.V. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Tamás Vicsek.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-6 with legends and additional experimental results, Supplementary Methods comprising Calculation of directional correlation delay and Validation of directional correlation delay method despite GPS error, Supplementary Tables 1-2 and legends for Supplementary Movies 1-2. (PDF 838 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

This movie contains an animation showing the flight of a flock of 10 homing pigeons in the vicinity of their loft, reconstructed from high-precision GPS data. Individuals are coloured according to hierarchical leadership rank (shown in the top left), determined on the basis of pairwise directional correlation delay times between individuals (See Supplementary Information file for full legend). (MOV 9237 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2

This movie contains an animation showing the flight of a flock of nine homing pigeons during a homing journey, reconstructed from high-precision GPS data. Individuals are coloured according to hierarchical leadership rank (shown in the top left), determined on the basis of pairwise directional correlation delay times between individuals (See Supplementary Information file for full legend). (MOV 9174 kb)

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Nagy, M., Ákos, Z., Biro, D. et al. Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks. Nature 464, 890–893 (2010).

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