Seagulls in Iran, by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

The AIP journal Chaos has announced that “Anatomy of leadership in collective behavior,” co-authored by SFI Omidyar Fellow Joshua Garland, former Omidyar Fellow Andrew Berdahl, and their collaborators, is among the most-downloaded papers of 2018.

The paper explores how leadership arises in groups of animals like schooling fish, flocking birds, and herding caribou. Rejecting simplistic “follow-the-leader” explanations, the authors develop an “anatomy of leadership” that relies on several principal components from how leadership arises in a group to how distributed, long-lasting, and far-reaching a particular leadership scenario is.

Technological advances in GPS recordings and drone footage mean that, for the first time, animal behaviorists are able to collect stunning amounts of high-quality, highly detailed data about animal movement and interaction. Mathematicians are also developing algorithms attempting to detect causality and information flow based on this data. But the data doesn’t always satisfy the assumptions underlying the algorithms.

“The challenge is, there are lots of really detailed math requirements that have to be met for the algorithms to produce meaningful results,” says Garland. 

The group’s paper provides a set of mathematically based toy models that integrate different facets of leadership under distinct leadership scenarios. 

“We believe this multifaceted approach to leadership will enable a broader understanding of leadership and its inference from data in mobile animal groups and beyond,” the authors write in the paper. 

And the response to the paper has been surprising. “We’re getting lots of feedback and questions about how to apply these toy models,” says Garland. “We are really excited for this opportunity for the animal behaviorists and the mathematicians to work together. This paper provides both sides with important caveats, a common language, and a set of toy models to bridge the gap and continue their conversations on more sound footing.”

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