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Social Networks and the Complexity and Beauty of Animal Life

Source: University of Chicago Press/with permission.

For many years, Lee Alan Dugatkin, a prolific author and leading researcher in animal behavior, has been one of my “go-to-guys” for learning about cutting-edge research in this and related fields. His book about power-brokering in the wild was one of the most novel books I’ve read in years, and his latest book, The Well-Connected Animal: Social Networks and the Wondrous Complexity of Animal Societies, is yet another one of his extremely thoughtful and readable works, this time outlining what we know about social networks in diverse species, how the research is conducted, and where future studies should best focus. In my own research, I often think of emotional social networks in which individual feelings serve as a “social glue” for others in their group.

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I’m sure many people will be pleasantly surprised by the flexible, intricate, and varied social networks that many nonhumans form and use in their daily lives. Here’s what Lee had to say about this fascinating discussion of social networks in widely diverse animals.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write The Well-Connected Animal?

Lee Dugatkin: I’ve been studying the complex, nuanced, strategic behavior of animals for 35 years, but even I was surprised when I discovered that non-humans are deeply embedded in their own social networks. When the first detailed work on social networks emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, there was skepticism in the animal behavior research community. The general sense was that nonhumans displayed a rich array of complex social behavior, but not that complex: not social network complex. When researchers began to publish more and more examples of social networks in animals in the early 2000s, the skepticism waned.

Since then, animal behavior researchers have been building models and testing hypotheses—most often in the field—about how social networks operate, why they work, who gets what, who matters most, and who does not so much, and more. Scientists have come to discover that being embedded in social networks plays a critical role in almost every aspect of animal life: what they eat, how they protect themselves, whom they mate with, the dynamics of parent-offspring relations, power struggles, navigation, communication, play, cooperation, and culture. Microbes—some good, some not so good—also hitchhike rides on the animals in these social networks. It’s time to tell the story of all this and more. Hence, The Well-Connected Animal.

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MB: What are some of the major topics you consider?

LD: This book walks the reader through findings from nonhuman social networks by taking a deep dive into animal behavior, evolution, computer science, psychology, anthropology, genetics, and neurobiology literature, and incorporating interviews and insights from researchers swimming with manta rays, avoiding pigeon poop, and stopping monkeys from stealing their iPads. The Well-Connected Animal tells of animal networks in Australia and Asia to Africa, Europe, and the Americas, taking readers into the midst of social networks in giraffes, elephants, kangaroos, chimpanzees, Tasmanian devils, crickets, honeybees, whales, bats, and more.

To give your readers a sense of what I mean, The Well-Connected Animal tells the tale of how Hurricane Maria upended the long-standing social networks in place among macaques on Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico, and how the macaques rebuilt those networks, shedding light on how animal social systems respond to catastrophic natural disasters. Data that Laurent Brent and her team had collected between 2010 to 2017 found that female macaques who had strong friendships (tight connections) with their favored grooming partners in their social network had higher survival probabilities than other females. Yet another way a female increased her chances of survival was through weaker connections but many grooming partners. Friends of friends also mattered to female macaques. The more friends of friends a female had, the more offspring she produced.

Then Hurricane Maria struck, devastating everything in its path. About three months after Hurricane Maria, when the shock had partly worn off, Brent and her colleagues began thinking seriously again about the effects of Maria on the dynamics of macaque social networks. What they discovered was that post-Hurricane, macaques had more social partners, but the average intensity of their relationship with a partner in their social grooming network had not changed: they had formed more friendships in their network, not strengthened already existing ones. The hurricane had brought the macaques in a group closer together, with additional grooming partners buffering them from the devastating effects that Maria left in its trail. And again, friends of friends mattered: macaques took the path of least resistance in forming new grooming relationships in their social network. If Monkey 1 had been in a grooming relationship with Monkey 2 before Maria, it was more likely to initiate a grooming relationship with one of Monkey 2’s grooming partners after the storm. Disaster, in the form of Hurricane Maria, had brought the monkeys closer to one another, and social network analysis was the perfect means to show how.

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MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about social networks encompassing numerous different animals, they will appreciate how many different lives are interconnected?

LD: “Every enlightened reader” may sound glib, but it is not far from the truth. From a human-centric view, we are all embedded in many overlapping social networks, and so a realization that such networks have been in place in nature for eons may help us understand our own social networks better. That said, we don’t need to reference human networks to appreciate nonhuman social networks: in that sense, The Well-Connected Animal is a stand-alone tribute to the complexity, depth, and, dare I say, the beauty of life in animal societies. The book not only delves into the science, but also the behind-the-scenes, everyday stories that go on when scientists study social networks in nonhumans in the wild. Readers get a sense of the science, but just as important, what it is like to do work in this field, including the role of the ups and downs and twists and turns that are sometimes sanitized away in science books. This approach provides the narrative backdrop to complement the remarkable science readers will learn about social networks in nonhumans.

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