Sociability leads to instability

Gareth J. Russell, Abraham Rosales

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


We present a general stochastic model showing that colonial breeding can lead to complex multi-colony population dynamics when combined with nothing more than (inevitably) imperfect decision-making by individuals. In particular, frequent "switching cascades"-mass movement of individuals between locations from one breeding season to the next-arise naturally from our model, bringing into question the need to invoke a separate, fitness-based explanation for this commonly observed real-world phenomenon. A key component of the model is the development, at the beginning of each breeding season, of a set of colonies, based on sequential choices by individuals about where to breed. Individuals favor the colony they bred in previously, but are also attracted to colonies that are rapidly establishing, and may switch locations. This provides a positive feedback that leads to switching cascades. We examine the effect on the dynamics of individuals' access to (and ability to act on) information, as well as the overall size of the colony system and of individual colonies. We compare the model's dynamics to the observed population dynamics of a set of heron and egret breeding colonies in New York Harbor.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-12
Number of pages10
JournalTheoretical Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology
  • Ecological Modeling


  • Behavior
  • Colonial species
  • Dispersal


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