Humans have often considered some animals as inferiorly intelligent creations, ones devoid of making independent decisions. We even coined a term for it: herd behavior. However, animal group dynamics have been a subject of interest for scientists for years, and a new study has found that sheep have collective intelligence, which belies the stereotyping of sheep flocks as the quintessential manifestation of a herd mentality.
The science and other stuff to know
Researchers from three different European universities — Luis Gómez-Nava from Université Côte d’Azur, Richard Bon from Université de Toulouse, and Fernando Peruani from CY Cergy Paris Université — recently presented their findings in a study published by Nature Physics, contending that analysis of “spontaneous behavior” of small sheep flocks indicated a collective behavior that “consists of a series of collective motion episodes interrupted by grazing phases”.
They maintained that sheep in a flock consistently switched positions as leaders and followers through a random process that was independent of the “navigation mechanism that regulates collective motion episodes”. This alternation of roles is what gave the flock a type of collective intelligence that guided their motion as well as grazing patterns.
Collective motion in gregarious animal systems was never a “continuous process, but occurs in episodes: collective motion phases are interrupted, for instance, to rest or feed”, Peruani explained to Phys.org.
During the study, researchers found the communication network that governed the flock behavior was highly hierarchical. Also, they showed “that the only information propagated through this network is that related to the sheep’s position within the group,” Phys.org reported.
Based on the findings, the researchers developed a model of “collective animal motion that focuses on two key cognitive processes. These processes are the selection of a leader who will lead the flock for a specific amount of time and the mechanism underlying the flock’s navigation”.
Peruani said that each collective motion phase had a temporal leader, and the flock wasted no time in giving control of the group to another leader for the next motion. If one temporal leader had some information the entire flock benefited from it and quickly moved on to utilize the information available with the next temporal leader.
There is a lot to be learned here, with the biggest takeaway being the excellent and consistent exploitation of both hierarchical and democratic principles by the flock to maximize gains. In analyzing communication passed within the group, flocks easily decided to follow the leader with certain information and consume that information for their benefit but exercised their democratic right to switch the leader as soon as the incentive had been utilized.
The behavior could also be an evolutionary response to ensure the group’s survival. Leadership means responsibility, and by constantly switching leaders, the group is constantly passing on the responsibility of looking after the group to individual members. This is not only an empowering mechanism, but it also lets the remaining group go about its thing in peace. And quick succession means no one is pressured by the leadership role for long.
Quite remarkable then, how the herd mentality we thought as pointless is super advanced in exploiting the best of autocracy as well as democracy.
Peruani and his team agree that many more studies with larger herds and various species would have to be conducted to analyze if the findings can be generalized.
“We are now investigating collective motion using groups of different agents,” Peruani added. “Specifically, we are comparing the spontaneous behavior of groups of lambs, young sheep, and adult sheep, to investigate whether sheep learn to follow temporal leaders and to act as one over time.”
So, the next time you label someone a sheep as a remark of derision, think twice. Sheep have collective intelligence and are champions of democracy, something we humans are still trying to come to terms with.