Predators attacking virtual prey reveal the costs and benefits of leadership

Christos C. Ioannou*, Florence Rocque, James E. Herbert-Read, Callum Duffield, Josh A. Firth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)
276 Downloads (Pure)


A long-standing assumption in social behaviour is that leadership incurs costs as well as benefits, and this trade-off can result in diversified social roles in groups. The major cost of leadership in moving animal groups is assumed to be predation, with individuals leading from the front of groups being targeted more often by predators. Nevertheless, empirical evidence for this is limited and
experimental tests are entirely lacking. To avoid confounding effects associated with observational studies, we presented a simulation of virtual prey to real fish predators to directly assess the predation cost of leadership. Prey leading others are at greater risk than those in the middle of groups, confirming that any benefits of leading may be offset by predation costs. Importantly, however, followers confer a net safety benefit to leaders, as prey leading others were less
likely to be attacked compared to solitary prey. We also find that the predators preferentially attacked when solitary individuals were more frequent, but this effect was relatively weak compared to the preference for attacking solitary prey during an attack. Using virtual prey, where the appearance and behaviour of the prey can be manipulated and controlled exactly, we reveal a hierarchy of risk from solitary to leading to following social strategies. Our results suggest that goal-orientated individuals, i.e. potential leaders, are under selective pressure to maintain group cohesion, favouring effective leadership rather than group fragmentation. Our results have significant implications for understanding the evolution and maintenance of different social roles in groups.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8925-8930
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number18
Early online date15 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2019

Bibliographical note

Submitted and accepted as: 'Anti-predator costs and benefits of leadership: experimental evidence using virtual prey attacked by real predators', published with amended title 'Predators attacking virtual prey reveal the costs and benefits of leadership'.


  • Collective behavior
  • Ollowers
  • Predation
  • Spatial position
  • Virtual prey


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