Conservation, Science

Linking animal social network theory to conservation

Available for free until September 7, 2017Click this link

Last week, June 22, a for me very important paper was published online in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. With this Opinion paper, me and my co-authors hope to stimulate a closer collaboration between animal social network scientists and conservation practitioners. You can read more about it in our press release below. If you are interested in reading the complete scientific article, but do not have access, please send me a message/email. 

As with humans, most animals prefer to associate with some individuals and not with others. The social structure can influence how a population responds to changes in its environment. Examining social networks is a promising technique for understanding, predicting and – if for the better – manipulating this structure. However, whereas the contribution of behavioural biology to conservation is already well recognized, the usefulness of animal social network analysis as a conservation tool has not yet been addressed. A group of behavioural ecologists led by Lysanne Snijders from the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) outlines how the understanding of relationships between animals could be applied by wildlife managers and conservationists to support their work in disease management, breeding programs, reintroductions or relocations, or for controlling problem behaviours – to name just a few.

Animal social network studies examine how the individuals of a population are socially connected, how they interact and associate. Knowledge of the social structure can help to identify the flow of information or the spread of disease, and has potential to be used as an indicator of upcoming population changes. Information of that kind would be less – or not at all – noticeable using methods purely based on population size or the observation of single individuals.

Dr Lysanne Snijders, Post Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Biology and Ecology of Fishes at IGB, describes this approach with the help of Aristotle: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Combined effects of social interactions in wildlife populations do not only have important theoretical but also practical implications. Linking animal social network theory to practice can therefore stimulate the design of new practical conservation tools and generate novel insights into how animal social networks change over time.”

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An example from real wildlife

For many species, it is not just diseases that can spread rapidly. Social information can also be transmitted via various routes within a group, for instance, innovative ways to search for food. In the case of the California sea lion, novel foraging strategies have led to conflict with a fishery conservation scheme. The sea lions had discovered that salmonids migrating upriver became more concentrated at a dam, making them easy prey. Unfortunately, those salmonids were endangered species. A recent study [1] showed that knowledge of the network structure could have helped wildlife managers to detect that at first it was only a few successful individuals who “recruited” the others, and that the selective removal of these information spreaders could have contained the problem. In this case social network analysis could therefore have assisted in protecting the endangered salmonids while culling fewer sea lions.

Snijders also suggests a possible example for how animal social network analysis could be used in conservation work in Europe: “In cases of recently reintroduced group living animals, such as the European bison, social network analyses could give insights into how a population’s long-term persistence might vary with particular behavioural processes within the group. But also into how group and individual movements might be effectively manipulated to avoid human-wildlife conflicts such as entering restricted areas like farm land.”

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Perspectives for implementation

In a field in which funds and time are limited, any newly suggested approach should have a distinct added value. Not every conservation challenge that is linked to a species’ social behaviour will require a social network approach to address it. The scientists also acknowledge that their proposal has to overcome another important hurdle first: before applying the knowledge of social relationships to management practices, it should become feasible and cost-effective to collect the required data in the first place. But with technological options becoming more common and affordable, an animal social network analysis approach could increasingly become an option.

There are several methods out there that have been successfully applied to map wildlife social networks, ranging from sampling individuals at fixed locations, to walking transects, to automatically spatially tracking the animals. Rapid advancements in technology, like proximity loggers and GPS tags, allow for ever smaller animal species to be tracked, while at the same time becoming more affordable. In addition, collaborations between research institutes and conservationists might provide opportunities for sharing the costs or the technology.

A video introduction to animal social networks by Lysanne Snijders >

Article:

Snijders, L., Blumstein, D. T., Stanley C. R., Franks, D. W. (2017): Animal Social Network Theory Can Help Wildlife Conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Read this article >

References:

[1] Zachary A. Schakner, Michael G. Buhnerkempe, Mathew J. Tennis, Robert J. Stansell, Bjorn K. van der Leeuw, James O. Lloyd-Smith, Daniel T. Blumstein (2016): Epidemiological models to control the spread of information in marine mammals. Published 14 December 2016. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2037

 

See original press release here.

@futurefornatureacademy
Conservation

Future For Nature Academy

Join me and become a part of the Future For Nature Academy (FFNA)! FFNA is an initiative started for and by young motivated nature conservationists in the Netherlands to create a platform where they can find each other and build a network. In the theme ‘Future For Nature’ (FFN) several national activities will be organized. These activities will be announced on the facebook page. This page will also keep you up to date about the most recent developments in nature conservation.

Past FFNA events included a lecture about wildlife trafficking with Ofir Drori and a live-stream with Jane Goodall.

Many inspiring activities are coming up this winter/spring of 2017:

Lecture by Wietse van der Werf – Utrecht – 21st of February
Movie Night + Expert Introduction – Utrecht – 1st of March
Political Debate on Sustainability – Wageningen – 8th of March
Seminar and masterclass with WEESThe impact of human activity on wild great apes in non-protected forests – Wageningen – 16th of March
Future For Nature Day – Wageningen – 30th of March
Levende Natuur Documentary with Q&A Ruben Smit – Velp – 3rd of April

During the Future For Nature Day, you can meet the true heroes of conservation, there is even the possibility to become their “Buddy”. Also the three national winners of the FFNA photo contest will be announced.

Buddy
Become a Buddy for Nature
Conservation

Calvin and Hobbes

CALVIN: If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.

HOBBES: How so?

CALVIN: Well, when you look into infinity, you realize that there are more important things than what people do all day.

HOBBES: We spent our day looking under rocks in the creek.

CALVIN: I mean other people.

-Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes