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Predators attacking virtual prey reveal the costs and benefits of leadership

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)

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
DateAccepted/In press - 12 Mar 2019
DateE-pub ahead of print - 15 Apr 2019
DatePublished (current) - 30 Apr 2019


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.

Additional information

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'.

    Research areas

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

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  • Full-text PDF (accepted author manuscript)

    Rights statement: This is the accepted author manuscript (AAM). The final published version (version of record) is available online via PNAS at . Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

    Accepted author manuscript, 2.5 MB, PDF document

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  • Full-text PDF (final published version)

    Rights statement: This is the final published version of the article (version of record). It first appeared online via PNAS at . Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

    Final published version, 663 KB, PDF document

    Licence: Other


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