The higher the better: sentinel height influences foraging success in a social bird

Andrew N. Radford, Linda I. Hollen, Matthew B. V. Bell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In all social species, information relevant to survival and reproduction can be obtained in two main ways: through personal interaction with the environment (i.e. 'personal' information) and from the performance of others (i.e. 'public' information). While public information is less costly to obtain than personal information, it may be inappropriate or inaccurate. When deciding how much to rely on public information, individuals should therefore assess its potential quality, but this possibility requires empirical testing in animals. Here, we use the sentinel system of cooperatively breeding pied babblers (Turdoides bicolor) to investigate how behavioural decisions of foragers are influenced by potential variation in the quality of anti-predator information from a vigilant groupmate. When sentinels moved to a higher position, from where their probability of detecting predators is likely to be greater, foragers reduced their vigilance, spread out more widely and were more likely to venture into the open. Consequently, they spent more time foraging and increased their foraging efficiency, resulting in a profound increase in biomass intake rate. The opposite behavioural changes, and consequent foraging outcomes, were found when sentinels moved lower. A playback experiment demonstrated that foragers can use vocal cues alone to assess sentinel height. This is the first study to link explicitly a measure of the potential quality of public information with a fitness measure from those relying on the information, and our results emphasize that a full understanding of the evolution of communication in complex societies requires consideration of the reliability of information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2437-2442
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences
Issue number1666
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2009


  • public inforamtion
  • reliability
  • anti-predator vigilance
  • foraging efficiency
  • vocalizations
  • cooperative breeding


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