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Biol Lett. 2011 Feb 23;7(1):63-6. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0627. Epub 2010 Sep 1.

Group decisions and individual differences: route fidelity predicts flight leadership in homing pigeons (Columba livia).

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Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK.


How social-living animals make collective decisions is currently the subject of intense scientific interest, with increasing focus on the role of individual variation within the group. Previously, we demonstrated that during paired flight in homing pigeons, a fully transitive leadership hierarchy emerges as birds are forced to choose between their own and their partner's habitual routes. This stable hierarchy suggests a role for individual differences mediating leadership decisions within homing pigeon pairs. What these differences are, however, has remained elusive. Using novel quantitative techniques to analyse habitual route structure, we show here that leadership can be predicted from prior route-following fidelity. Birds that are more faithful to their own route when homing alone are more likely to emerge as leaders when homing socially. We discuss how this fidelity may relate to the leadership phenomenon, and propose that leadership may emerge from the interplay between individual route confidence and the dynamics of paired flight.

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