Spatiotemporal Group Dynamics in a Long-Distance Migratory Bird

Authors: Kiran L. Dhanjal-Adams, Silke Bauer, Tamara Emmenegger, Steffen Hahn, Simeon Lisovski, and Felix Liechti

Year: 2019

Publication: Current Biology

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Keywords: animal migration, fission-fusion dynamics, group decision making, pressure sensor, PAM logger, European bee-eater, Merops

Abstract: Thousands of species migrate. Though we have some understanding of where and when they travel, we still have very little insight into who migrates with whom and for how long. Group formation is pivotal in allowing individuals to interact, transfer information, and adapt to changing conditions. Yet it is remarkably difficult to infer group membership in migrating animals without being able to directly observe them. Here, we use novel lightweight atmospheric pressure loggers to monitor group dynamics in a small migratory bird, the European bee-eater ( Merops apiaster). We present the first evidence of a migratory bird flying together with non-kin of different ages and sexes at all stages of the life cycle. In fact, 49% stay together throughout the annual cycle, never separating longer than 5 days at a time despite the ∼14,000-km journey. Of those that separated for longer, 89% reunited within less than a month with individuals they had previously spent time with, having flown up to 5,000 km apart. These birds were not only using the same non-breeding sites, but also displayed coordinated foraging behaviors—these are unlikely to result from chance encounters in response to the same environmental conditions alone. Better understanding of migratory group dynamics, using the presented methods, could help improve our understanding of collective decision making during large-scale movements.

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