Lack of experience-based stratification in homing pigeon leadership hierarchies.
Watts I., Pettit B., Nagy M., de Perera TB., Biro D.
In societies that make collective decisions through leadership, a fundamental question concerns the individual attributes that allow certain group members to assume leadership roles over others. Homing pigeons form transitive leadership hierarchies during flock flights, where flock members are ranked according to the average time differences with which they lead or follow others' movement. Here, we test systematically whether leadership ranks in navigational hierarchies are correlated with prior experience of a homing task. We constructed experimental flocks of pigeons with mixed navigational experience: half of the birds within each flock had been familiarized with a specific release site through multiple previous releases, while the other half had never been released from the same site. We measured the birds' hierarchical leadership ranks, then switched the same birds' roles at a second site to test whether the relative hierarchical positions of the birds in the two subsets would reverse in response to the reversal in levels of experience. We found that while across all releases the top hierarchical positions were occupied by experienced birds significantly more often than by inexperienced ones, the remaining experienced birds were not consistently clustered in the top half-in other words, the network did not become stratified. We discuss our results in light of the adaptive value of structuring leadership hierarchies according to 'merit' (here, navigational experience).