London, UK: Scientists have strapped tiny GPS systems to pigeons to analyse the way bird flocks change direction and stay together in a study they hope will also give clues to human collective behaviour. Researchers from Britain and Hungary used GPS backpacks to record the flight paths of individual pigeons and then analysed interactions between the birds.
To conduct their study, the researchers fitted miniature GPS loggers weighing just 16g (less than one ounce) into custom-made backpacks carried by flocks of up to 10 homing pigeons. The devices allowed scientists to analyse spatial and temporal relationships between birds and the movement decisions they made at the scale of a fraction of a second.
Scientists found that pigeon flocks use a flexible system of leadership where almost every member plays a part, but high-ranking birds have more power. The findings were published in the journal Nature. Dora Biro of the zoology department at Britain’s Oxford University, who worked on the study, said, “These hierarchies are flexible in the sense that the leading role of any given bird can vary over time. This dynamic, flexible segregation of individuals into leaders and followers — where even the lower-ranking members’ opinions can make a contribution — may represent a particularly efficient form of decision-making.”
The scientists said more studies could help explain how such a sophisticated leadership system is able to give evolutionary advantage to individuals, compared with strategy based on a single leader or one where all members play an equal part.