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Ecology. 2014 Jul;95(7):1799-808.

Bird sky networks: how do avian scavengers use social information to find carrion?


The relative contribution of personal and social information to explain individual and collective behavior in different species and contexts is an open question in animal ecology. In particular, there is a major lack of studies combining theoretical and empirical approaches to test the relative relevance of different hypothesized individual behaviors to predict empirical collective patterns. We used an individual-based model to confront three hypotheses about the information transfer between social scavengers (Griffon Vultures, Gyps fulvus) when searching for carrion: (1) Vultures only use personal information during foraging ("nonsocial" hypothesis); (2) they create long chains of vultures by following both other vultures that are flying towards carcasses and vultures that are following other vultures that are flying towards carcasses ("chains of vultures" hypothesis); and (3) vultures are only attracted by other vultures that are sinking vertically to a carcass ("local enhancement" hypothesis). The chains of vultures hypothesis has been used in existing models, but never been confronted with field data. Testing is important, though, because these hypotheses could have different management implications. The model was parameterized to mimic the behavior and the densities of both Griffon Vultures and carcasses in a 10,000-km2 study area in northeastern Spain. We compared the number of vultures attending simulated carcasses with those attending 25 continuously monitored experimental carcasses in the field. Social hypotheses outperformed the nonsocial hypothesis. The chains of vultures hypothesis overestimated the number of vultures feeding on carcasses; the local enhancement hypothesis fitted closely to the empirical data. Supported by our results, we discuss mechanistic and adaptive considerations that reveal that local enhancement may be the key social mechanism behind collective foraging in this and likely other avian scavengers and/or social birds. It also highlights the current need for more studies confronting alternative models of key behaviors with empirical patterns in order to understand how collective behavior emerges in animal societies.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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