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Signal reliability and decision making in social birds (Signal reliability)
Start date: 01 Oct 2008, End date: 31 Jan 2012 PROJECT  FINISHED 

Vocalisations play a key communicatory role in many social species and individuals often rely on information provided by others. To avoid unnecessary costs, receivers would benefit by responding differently to signallers of different reliability, especially if the information conveyed is critical for survival. However, we know surprisingly little about how receivers assess signaller reliability and to what aspect they adjust their responses. The goal of this project is to address largely unexplored aspects of signaller reliability and the resultant decisions made by other group members, using a wild, but habituated, population of pied babblers (Turdoides bicolor), a social bird species. First, I will compare two measures of signaller reliability in terms of alarm calling (calls given to warn others of danger), to investigate whether signallers differ in their reliability in more than one way in the same context, and whether receivers respond differently depending on the element of reliability that is assessed. Second, I will examine whether foragers alter their behaviour depending on the reliability of a sentinel (an individual scanning for predators from a raised position); specifically, whether their decisions are influenced by a sentinel’s position (sentinels perched higher might be more reliable in detecting predators), and a pre-formed concept of the sentinel’s reliability in terms of alarm calling. The proposed research will greatly enhance our understanding of fundamental aspects of animal signalling and behavioural plasticity in social groups. By combining mathematical modelling with empirical data collection and experimentation, the work will be truly integrative and multidisciplinary and will result in several publications in high-ranking journals, enhancing my chances of pursuing a career path in research, one of the main objectives of the Marie Curie scheme.
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