This blog post is provided by Jennifer Smith and Noa Pinter-Wollman and tells the #StoryBehindThePaper for the article “Observing the unwatchable: Integrating automated sensing, naturalistic observations and animal social network analysis in the age of big data“, which was recently published in Journal of Animal Ecology Animal Social Networks Special Issue.
In recent decades, technology has radically changed our lives, with new applications and tools emerging at an unprecedented rate. Imagine a world without laptops, cell phones, Zoom calls, or Twitter. A lot has changed in our personal social lives, particularly in the way we, as social animals, communicate with each other.
Technological innovations are shaping scientific methodologies and research discoveries as well. Just a short time ago, we had to hand-draw figures or look-up critical values for our statistics in tables. In ecology, classical methods include muddy boots, a field notebook, a sense of curiosity for understanding the natural world, and perhaps even a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope.
Tracking individuals over time with traditional methods has yielded decades of insights into the social lives of mammals in open habitats from marmots in the Rocky Mountains in the USA and red deer of Scotland to elephants, baboons, and spotted hyenas in the open plains of Africa. These animals socialize in relatively open, terrestrial habitats that allow researchers to observe recognizable individuals from a distance with relative ease. These pioneering, long-term studies have contributed greatly to our fundamental understanding of how and why animals socialize in their groups.
In large part, the success of these studies was shaped by the governing principles of Jeanne Altmann, who in 1974 wrote a fundamental paper entitled, “Observational Study of Behavior: Sampling Methods.” Cited more than 16,000 times, this paper has become a cornerstone of behavioral ecology research and a ‘must read’ for anyone wishing to study the social lives of animals in the natural world.
Yet, exciting modern tools are expanding researchers’ ability to study animals that live in hidden, or otherwise inaccessible spaces, and over time and spatial scales that were otherwise intractable to researchers previously. Such advances are important because much of the socializing that animals do occurs outside of the typical range of view of human observers. Many animals socialize in hidden spaces, such as underground or deep in the ocean, which have been relatively hidden to ecologists until recent years. Ground squirrels split their time between above and below ground social networks, sharks and fish swim into hidden spaces in the ocean, bats interact in caves and other crevices, and honeybees, ants, and birds, spend large amounts of their social lives in hidden nests.
In recent decades, new methodological developments for collecting data remotely on social behaviour involve indirect inference of associations, direct recordings of interactions with tags, and other remote sensing technology such as machine vision. These tools are opening up exciting new questions about animal social behavior. In particular, new computational methods offer important insights into the social lives of animals in the field of animal social networks, including patterns that were previously unwatchable to human observers. As part of a special issue for advancing research on animal social networks, our paper outlines recent revolutionary technological advances in the study of social networks in the age of big data.
We outline how these new tools expand the questions that stem from the same basic interests in animal social behaviour that motivated Jeanne Altmann’s fundamental work nearly 50 years ago. We provide a roadmap for a new generation of researchers tackling exciting questions at spatial and temporal scales never before imaginable. We discuss how technological advances reveal new intricacies of animal social interactions in ecological contexts that have been hidden from humans to make the unwatchable seeable.
Jennifer and Noa will be presenting their paper at the Animal Behaviour Twitter Conference using the hashtag #AnimBehav2021 in the Social and collective behaviour and networks session. Check out their tweets at @JennSmithSocBeh, and ask questions about the paper on the 27th (or 28th) January over on Twitter. Their live session is at 13.20 London time, 8.20 New York time, 21.20 Taipei time, and 00.20 (28th) Sydney time.
Or contact the authors directly here:
Read the paper
Read the full paper here: Smith, JE, Pinter‐Wollman, N. Observing the unwatchable: Integrating automated sensing, naturalistic observations and animal social network analysis in the age of big data. J Anim Ecol. 2021; 90: 62– 75. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.13362