Wtzqq25h 1346035898.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Tits are all a-twitter about the benefits of social networking

Tits and social networks have gone together since the dawn of time. Shirley Clarke/Wikimedia

Tits are all a-twitter about the benefits of social networking

While social networking is something many of us have only recently become aware of, a new study by University of Oxford and ANU researchers shows birds have been hanging out on the social network for a long time.

For many animals a daily challenge is being able to find enough food, especially for animals living in cold and seasonal environments in which food might be in short supply and very patchy. Such is the lot of the well-studied Great Tits and Blue Tits in a long-running study population in a woodland just outside Oxford.

Using microchips (similar to those used in cats and dogs) to track the daily visits of these birds to feeding stations, the researchers were able to see who was “following” who and essentially identify the social “movers and shakers”.

After monitoring the tits at regular feeding stations over a number of cold winter months, the researchers could see some individuals had many associations with others over the entire period, at these regular feeding stations, while others were less well connected.

The researchers then set the birds an interesting challenge, by sneaking into the woodland at night (while the birds were asleep) and setting up some new feeders that the birds had to find (the birds were rewarded with sunflower seeds). With their 24/7 monitoring system the researchers could see how many of the new feeders were found, and how quickly individuals started using them.

The individuals that were most socially connected with others in the population typically found more new feeders in total, and started using them more quickly. Although the study was not able to show exactly how this was occurring it shows being social and popular can have rewards in socially gregarious animals.

The obvious analogy here is with the transmission of useful information at the office water cooler, or in the virtual environment of Facebook. The more people you chat to, the more quickly you will hear about a new restaurant or an “unmissable” retail opportunity somewhere.

The benefits of social networking in these tits, that the authors have demonstrated, are likely to be countered by costs, such as the susceptibility to parasites, the risk of following false leads, or a higher risk of catching a disease for the most social animals.

But the new study is exciting because it helps us to understand how animal societies operate and indicates the extent to which individuals within populations are really tightly connected to one another. This has important consequences for areas of biology such as disease transmission and conservation.