I was an only child until I was eleven years old. As a result I spent quite a bit of time entertaining myself –reading, playing solitary games, creating imaginary friends. I was envious of other children from larger families because they seemed to have these pre-established friendships with real people. As an adult I can be doe-eyed, so I am pretty sure I was a naïve youngster. Whenever, I met another child who engaged me I was quick to refer to him or her as a friend. My mother (and grandmother) would promptly correct me. I didn’t know any of them long enough or deep enough for them to warrant that title. It took a few bumps, bruises, and heartaches to comprehend the lessons they were trying to teach me.

Social interactions are a part of life – human life and animal life. In my animal behavior class I recently lectured on Group Anti-predator defenses. Living in groups can confer many advantages to animals: warmth, location of potential mates, increased access to food, learning opportunities, and mates to help you fend off predators.

Groups have a many advantages over individuals – more eyes and ears and noses to spot predators help prey animals like meerkats, deer and songbirds hide to safety, get away, or even fight off snakes, wolves, or hawks. Group living animals employ many tactics. When many individuals come together they coordinate multiple tactics such as enhanced vigilance, confusing and evading predators, and fighting back. In some cases it looks as if a group may be working together for the greater good. For example, an individual scanning the horizon while the others are feeding spots a predators and sounds the alarm (a visual, auditory, or chemical signal). Is he telling friends to either run and hide or rally to attack the enemy? The larger the group, the harder it is for the predator to pinpoint any single individual. As a result risk of predation is diluted and predators may become confused. But is it an individual only looking out him/herself?

It’s hard to know sometime. Behaving alone costs more than behaving socially, but the rewards of behaving individually are greater. How would you measure it? Take note of who takes risks and how often. For animals that aggregate in groups, behavioral ecologists measure selfish herd effect by measuring the amount of turnover of individuals in the center of the aggregate. Since individuals on the edge are the most vulnerable to predators, the safest place to be is near the center, shielded by others. So, how can you tell if someone’s your friend? Well, you could see if they bother you warn you of trouble, will help you out in a bad situation or willing to stand between you and an enemy. Otherwise, what you might have is a really cool associate.

(Wow, and looking at this video takes me back to college. I wore every single hair style at some point in the 1990’s…and those over-sized colorful clothes! LOL)

Reference: Perspectives on Animal Behavior. 2010. Judith Goodenough, Betty McGuire, Elizabeth Jakob. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.