Modeling Collective Decision-Making in Animal Groups

University dissertation from Uppsala : Department of Mathematics

Abstract: Many animal groups benefit from making decisions collectively. For example, colonies of many ant species are able to select the best possible nest to move into without every ant needing to visit each available nest site. Similarly, honey bee colonies can focus their foraging resources on the best possible food sources in their environment by sharing information with each other. In the same way, groups of human individuals are often able to make better decisions together than each individual group member can on his or her own. This phenomenon is known as "collective intelligence", or "wisdom of crowds." What unites all these examples is the fact that there is no centralized organization dictating how animal groups make their decisions. Instead, these successful decisions emerge from interactions and information transfer between individual members of the group and between individuals and their environment. In this thesis, I apply mathematical modeling techniques in order to better understand how groups of social animals make important decisions in situations where no single individual has complete information. This thesis consists of five papers, in which I collaborate with biologists and sociologists to simulate the results of their experiments on group decision-making in animals. The goal of the modeling process is to better understand the underlying mechanisms of interaction that allow animal groups to make accurate decisions that are vital to their survival. Mathematical models also allow us to make predictions about collective decisions made by animal groups that have not yet been studied experimentally or that cannot be easily studied. The combination of mathematical modeling and experimentation gives us a better insight into the benefits and drawbacks of collective decision making, and into the variety of mechanisms that are responsible for collective intelligence in animals. The models that I use in the thesis include differential equation models, agent-based models, stochastic models, and spatially explicit models. The biological systems studied included foraging honey bee colonies, house-hunting ants, and humans answering trivia questions.