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Social Status and Birds: Monk Parakeets Establish Rank Based on Aggressive Behaviors

Sep 14, 2015 01:07 PM EDT
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A bit in the way that male elephant seals judge other males by their call and decide whether or not to pick fights with them, monk parakeets have been found to duel for the dominate position in their newly formed groups. While they don't perceive rank, a recent study found that after about a week of interacting with each other, the birds quickly learn where they stand in the ranks.

"Parakeets appear to be able to connect the dots in their groups, remembering chains of aggression, so if A fights B, then watches how B fights C and how C fights D and how D fights E, then A will use this knowledge to adjust how it interacts with E based on all of the fights in between," Elizabeth Hobson, lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, explained in a news release.

Monk parakeets, it seems are a species that does things differently. Their habit of assigning rank based on aggressive encounters is different from the structure of many other animal groups, which involve distinguishing a leader based on visual or perceptional clues.

In this study, the scientists analyzed two independent groups of captive monk parakeets for 24 days. In total, they witnessed 1013 wins -- or, cases in which a parakeet knocked another off a perch -- in one group and 1360 wins in the second group, according to the news release.

As two parakeets fought, others would watch so that they could assess their own abilities and pick their battles wisely. According to the researchers, the birds then either avoided fights they seemed unlikely to win, or chose fights with clearly lower-ranking other members. This suggests that the birds have a complex cognitive ability that is learned through careful observation, as the release noted.

"Our approach provides insight not only into how these parakeets are behaving in their groups, but also into the cognitive skills they would need to exhibit these kinds of strategic behaviors. This allows us to start to understand the interaction between social and cognitive complexity and to begin to compare what we see in the parakeet groups to other socially complex species like primates," Hobson said in a statement.

Their findings were recently published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology

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