Birds of the same feather group together but, within their flocks, flamingos form smaller cliques of like-minded individuals, a new study suggests.
While previous research showed that flamingos formed friendship groups, the findings of this latest study, published in the journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday, indicated that these friendships are partly decided by individuals’ intrinsic traits.
Researchers at the University of Exeter and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) studied a flock of 147 Caribbean flamingos and a separately housed flock of 115 Chilean flamingos at the WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire between March and July 2014.
Both groups were found to have individuals with varying behavioural traits, and they appeared to use these traits to choose which flamingos they would associate themselves with the most.
“For example, bolder birds had stronger, more consistent ties with other bold birds, while submissive birds tended to spend their time with fellow submissive flamingos,” said study co-author and animal behavioural scientist Dr Paul Rose, a research associate at WWT and lecturer at the University of Exeter.
In the Caribbean flock, personality was found to have an effect on social roles, with flamingos displaying higher levels of aggressive, exploratory and submissive behaviour having more friends in their clique and forming stronger connections with those friends.
Those flamingos also engaged in more fights and were more willing to provide back-up when friends in their clique were threatened, the researchers observed.
This is possibly because outgoing and aggressive tendencies make birds more likely to engage in a wider range of activities, such as exploring and fighting, which would associate them with more individuals, the researchers said.
They added that if aggressive birds engage in confrontations more frequently than others, then stronger network ties might help them to gain social support from their close associates.
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“This study is significant because it shows that, for flamingos specifically, their social lives are complex and the relationships they form within them are clearly important to bird wellbeing and to flock cohesion. And both of these will impact on breeding potential and reproductive success”, Dr Rose told Sky News.
“For captive animals more generally, this study shows that it is important to look more deeply into the social lives of many more species of animal. Not just the commonly studied species such as great apes and monkeys, but all social animals in the zoo.
“Clearly the individual choices that animals make within a social group are important to them.”
Since the researchers found the relationship between flamingos to be long-lasting, with birds from the same origin – whether bred in captivity or caught in the wild – associating themselves more closely, they recommended that managers keep established relationships intact when translocating birds.
Do all flamingos behave this way?
In contrast to the Caribbean flock, personality did not appear to influence social standings and confrontational interactions among those in the Chilean flock, and the Chilean flamingos were not found to use age as a factor when picking their friends – as was done in the Caribbean group.
The study could not say why that was the case, but noted that the Chilean group was a lot smaller than the Caribbean flock, and their breeding period was later in the summer, so these factors could have impacted the structure and behaviour of the group, making it more challenging to directly compare the two flocks.
The researchers recommended the study should be replicated with other groups to see if their findings could apply to flamingos in general, and not just the two flocks studied.
“It would be great to see this work carried out in flocks of wild birds but unfortunately flamingos are tricky to investigate in the wild because they occur in such vast flocks and can be unpredictable in their movements. Therefore following individual birds over time to see who they are with is very difficult”, added Dr Rose.
“To see others repeat this study with their own flamingo flocks and compare findings of personalities that are expressed would also be very interesting and show whether or not all flamingos behave in the same manner that our birds did.”