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Emergent leadership by well-informed individuals in self-organising groups

   School of Biological Sciences

About the Project


Groups of molecules, cells and organisms often display sophisticated collective properties whose complexity far exceeds the capacity of the individual units. In Physics, Mathematics, and more recently in Biology, studies of self-organisation have shown that very simple rules at the individual level can lead to the emergence of a great diversity of collective patterns. A major asset of self-organised systems over centrally- or hierarchically-organised alternatives lies in their resilience and flexibility, which are expressed without requiring inter-individual variation. However, there is ever-increasing evidence that the collective behaviours expressed by animal groups are sensitive to inter-individual differences in skill, experience or knowledge. In particular, many group-living species, from social insects to humans, have been shown to benefit from the presence of well-informed individuals that act as ‘effective leaders’. The identification of the mechanisms that allow well-informed individuals to exert disproportionate influence without requiring explicit signalling would lead to a better understanding of emergent behaviour in many taxa. This could in turn stimulate developments across a range of applications, from more efficient crowd control during emergency evacuation, to the development of novel distributed algorithms for the control of robot swarms. However, so far the empirical study of emergent leadership in primates and other vertebrates has been impeded by logistical issues. As groups may range over tens or even hundreds of kilometres, experimental manipulations of individual behaviour are often precluded, and experimental replication is typically limited. Colonies of social insects offer a promising alternative to study how behavioural idiosyncrasies at the individual level generate adaptive collective behaviours in self-organising systems. Their small size and relative cognitive simplicity indeed render them particularly amenable to laboratory experimentation and allow for high levels of experimental replication. Additionally, tens of millions of years of evolution as social organisms have selected for efficient mechanisms that integrate numerous, noisy individual behaviours into highly coordinated, adaptive collective actions. In this project, you will use ants as a model system to investigate the mechanisms allowing well-informed individuals to emerge as ‘leaders’ in self-organising groups.

Project overview

To address the core aims of the project, you will focus on the collective selection of new nest sites in rock ants. In these ants, scouts memorise information about the quality of nearby suitable nest sites while their home nest is intact, and later help the entire colony more rapidly select the best among these options when relocation becomes necessary. Recent work noted a strong association between the amount of private information gathered by individual scouts and their ‘assertiveness’ in later emigrations, that is, their tendency to make early decisions uniquely informed by their private information rather than waiting for social information provided by their nestmates. The overall aim of the project will be to test the hypothesis that well-informed individuals emerge as leaders by increasing their assertiveness when the certainty of their private information increases. To do so, you will use behavioural experiments combining automated tracking and automated doors controlling individual access to information, as well as social network analyses and agent-based modelling.

Desired profile

We are looking for candidates with a background in animal behaviour and/or computational biology, and an eagerness to learn and apply a variety of approaches (behavioural tracking, writing own code to analyse data, lab work). Candidates should be creative and motivated, have good oral and written communication skills, and be at ease working both independently and as part of a team.

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