Scientists discovered that the way a flock of pigeons chooses their leader is based on speed.
Past studies have shown flock leadership has nothing to do with social dominance or amount of training, Cell Press reported. These new findings offer a simple explanation for what qualities make for a good flock leader, and could also shed light on how spatial knowledge is generated and retained in navigating flocks.
"This changes our understanding of how the flocks are structured and why flocks of this species have consistent leadership hierarchies," said Dora Biro of the University of Oxford.
To make their findings, a team of researchers used new sensor technology GPS loggers to track a flock of pigeons' routes and sub-second time delays in which they react to one-another during flight. The findings suggest a pigeon's degree of leadership is largely based on their speed in earlier flights. The researchers also noted leader pigeons had straighter homing routes than followers during flock migration, but not during solo flights.
"Some birds are naturally faster and consistently get to the front, where they end up doing more of the navigation, which means on future flights they know the way better," Biro said. "You can compare this to a 'passenger-driver'-like effect: drivers in a car have to pay attention while passengers are often unable to recall the route they were driven along, especially if they remained passive in the navigation process."
The findings demonstrate that leadership can be based on "unavoidable consequence of individual differences within a population." This included simple mechanisms such as variations in speed.
"Our findings broaden the range of species and situations in which we would expect to see leadership and explain how leadership and competence can naturally come to correlate," said Benjamin Pettit, the first author of the study.
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Current Biology.