What underlies waves of agitation in starling flocks

Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 2015;69(5):755-764. doi: 10.1007/s00265-015-1891-3. Epub 2015 Mar 25.


Fast transfer of information in groups can have survival value. An example is the so-called wave of agitation observed in groups of animals of several taxa under attack. It has been shown to reduce predator success. It usually involves the repetition of a manoeuvre throughout the group, transmitting the information of the attack quickly, faster than the group moves itself. The specific manoeuvre underlying a wave is typically known, but not so in starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Although waves of agitation in starling flocks have been suggested to reflect density waves, exact escape manoeuvres cannot be distinguished because flocks are spatially too far away. Therefore, waves may also reflect orientation waves (due to escape by rolling). In the present study, we investigate this issue in a computational model, StarDisplay. We use this model because its flocks have been shown to resemble starling flocks in many traits. In the model, we show that agitation waves result from changes in orientation rather than in density. They resemble empirical data both qualitatively in visual appearance and quantitatively in wave speed. In the model, local interactions with only two to seven closest neighbours suffice to generate empirical wave speed. Wave speed increases with the number of neighbours mimicked or repeated from and the distance to them. It decreases with reaction time and with time to identify the escape manoeuvre of others and is not affected by flock size. Our findings can be used as predictions for empirical studies.

Keywords: Agitation wave in a starling flock; Collective motion; Escape manoeuvre; Individual-based model; Information transmission; Wave speed.