What is Collective Behavior?

Animals in groups – like fish schools, bird flocks, and insect swarms – frequently exhibit complex and coordinated behaviours that result from social interactions among individuals. These emergent properties of interacting units span systems and scales, from cells forming biological tissues, fish schools moving in synchrony, animal migrations across continents, and robot swarms.

A fundamental problem in a wide range of disciplines is understanding how functional complexity at a macroscopic scale results from the actions and interactions among the individual components. In the Department of Collective Behaviour at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, we use a wide range of animal systems to address this fundamental question. In our research, we harness the opportunities provided by studying animal groups in both the lab and field. These animal collectives present unrivalled opportunities to link the behaviour of individuals with the functioning and efficiency of dynamic group-level properties. Our taxonomic interests are broad; we have established research programs examining social and collective behaviour in insects, spiders, fish, birds, and mammals.

Our department is a highly interdisciplinary environment with a closely integrated experimental and theoretical research program to elucidate the fundamental principles that underlie collective behaviour across levels of biological organization. The systems we use are both observable and readily able to be manipulated, and are ideal subjects with which to develop and test mathematical models that predict dynamic group-level properties from the behaviour of smaller components. By integrating research at all levels of organization – from the neurobiological mechanisms of social interaction, all the way to movement ecology of social groups of large vertebrates – research in our department provides unrivalled opportunities to quantify the behaviour of individual components within the context of the collective.

At the Department of Collective Behaviour at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, we combine detailed experimental studies in the laboratory with observational and experimental studies of animals in the wild. This combination provides extensive opportunities to develop an understanding of collective animal behaviour in an ecologically-relevant context. Ultimately, it enables us to determine how selection operates on animal collectives and how interactions among individuals that are responsible for emergent group-level outcomes have evolved. We have field sites globally, as well as labs at the University of Konstanz.


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