Monday, 30 July 2012

What we hope to learn using social networks: Part 1 - Do different geese have different "social strategies"?

Constructing social networks for our study populations of brent geese is all well and good but to take advantage of their full potential its important to use them to answer specific questions about individuals or the population as a whole. Perhaps the most simple questions to answer using the information available in a network is to ask whether individuals have different "social strategies" and whether these are consistent or vary over time, either randomly or because of changes to an individual's status or the environment that it finds itself in.

Brent flock in McAuley Park, North Dublin

Individual geese could follow any number of different social strategies, with the formation of lots and lots of weak social associations, and forming rather few social associations that are much stronger than expected by chance being the extremes. If these extremes do exist, the using social networks to find out which geese follow particular strategies could be important in understanding processes happening at a population level. For example, if a goose forms lots of weak social interactions it may be important in connecting different parts of the social network which could make it more likely to be important in spreading diseases through the population. 

It is movement between sites that can be important in causing the fission and fusion of flocks that causes the social structure in Brent Geese to be so complex - this is a flock disturbed from school playing fields in Clontarf

Obviously the importance of social strategy depends on how consistent the type of social associations are for each individual. If the social strategy of an individual is random and varies greatly over short time-scales then there is only so much we can learn from the social networks. However, if particular individuals or types of individual (those that are unassociated or in poor body condition say) tend to consistently form similar patterns of association in multiple networks constructed over different time periods then the differences we can find in "social strategy" by looking at our networks our real and of great importance. The causes and consequences of these variations in social strategy will be discussed further in future posts.

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