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The herd instinct... a survival strategy

Herds, swarms, flocks, tribes... all animal societies that have been built by instinct, habit and learning. Choosing to move in social groups is a decision based on survival. Whether migrating in groups to find safety in numbers, or to further exploit a food source, or even to defend themselves and their resources better against competitors – survival is the fundamental function of sociability. One concomitant of the herd instinct is that individuals of species that herd together for security tend to favour ‘flight’ (towards the herd) rather than to ‘fight’ a threat.

1. Chital Axis Axis:

Hira Punjabi Photograph by: Hira Punjabi.

Found in the deciduous forests of India and Sri Lanka, chital deer seek safety in numbers. Usually found in small herds of five or ten, when food is abundant soon after the monsoons and chital rut is at its peak, thousands of deer may cluster within a few sq. km. of pasture. Chital are the only species of deer in which both sexes have spotted coats at all ages, but we do not know how, or whether, this morphology influences the herding instinct. A stray chital is more vulnerable to predation and the response when contronted by a predatedor is to bunch together. Animals on the periphery run the greatest risk and there is a mad scramble to get to the centre of the herd. Large stags usually get their way.

2. Spot Swordtail Butterfly Graphium nominus nominus:

Dr. Mayilvahanan Photograph by: Dr. Mayilvahanan.

This image shows a group of spot swordtails feeding collectively in what is described as 'pudding' behaviour in moths and butterflies. Scientists have recorded some species actually consuming more than 600 times their body weight in liquid by drinking and voiding for three hours to access mineral salts, to pass on valuable ions to developing eggs. Butterflies and moths consume only liquid foods such as plant sap, liquid mud, animal dung, urine or the body fluids of dead animals through their proboscis.

Communication plays a key role in bonding within groups of animals and is the primary link between individuals. This involves signals and signs honed over millennia. These visual, auditory, olfactory or tactile signals help hold the group together. Signals conveying messages like, “I am here, follow me” or “stay where you are” bind the group, offering greater security from attack. Mammals that live in herds enjoy the same advantages as flocking birds or schools of fish. Animal conglomerates keep predators at bay and utilise food resources more efficiently. Food availability thus determines social organisation. Scarcity can cause herds and flocks to disperse. Abundance tends to stimulate more pronounced social behaviour.

3. Red Weaver Ants Oecophylla:

P. Karunakaran Photograph by: P. Karunakaran.

Ants are the ultimate social animals. Weavers employ child labour because adults are incapable of weaving the silk needed to hold the six or more leaves required for a nest together. Soldier ants will guard their queen with their lives. If the nest is damaged or torn by a predator, hundreds of soldiers will swarm out to drive away the invader. Torn edges will be drawn together by workers, clinging to one side with their feet and to the other with their jaws. Other workers sew the tear with fine quick drying adhesive silk produced by their larvae. Each grub is clasped firmly in the jaws of a worker, and is passed to and fro like a loom shuffle, squeezing out a fine sticky thread. But after this the larvae exhaust their silk supply and cannot build cocoons... so the adults put them together in protected chambers where they develop safely.

4. Pelicans Pelecanidae:

Hira Punjabi Photograph by: Hira Punjabi.

Pelicans drive fish towards the shallows where they can pick them up easily. Without cooperative flock hunting they would be less successful in finding food.

5. Lions Panthera leo persica:

Mandal Ranjit Photograph b: Mandal Ranjit.

These gregarious animals are the only sociable members of the cat family. Lying in cover near a waterhole or stream or in the shade of spreading trees, lions cooperate in hunting, to stalk or ambush prey. They also employ collective defence strategies.

6. Elephants Elephas maximus:

Singh Raj Singh Poonia Photograph by: Singh Raj Singh Poonia.

Elephant herds are matriarchal and rarely wander more than a day's journey from a waterhole or river. A key strategy of herds is to map migratory routes, when protection of the young and vulnerable is an imperative for survival. When elephants are on the march to reliable feeding spots, several family groups may temporarily come together to form larger herds. Bulls often live alone, which could be an evolutionary adaptation in long-lived species that prevents inbreeding.

7. Hardground barasingha Cervus duvauceli branderi:

Hira Punjabi Photograph by: Hira Punjabi.

Grass eaters, these barasingha survive only in Kanha today, in fragmented herds, whose survival is dependent on the productivity of forest enclosed meadows. Like chital the barasingha find security in numbers from predators such as wild dogs, tigers, and leopards. Herds comprise both males and females for the most part of the year, though buck parties are also known. The average herd size is 10-20.

Sanctuary Asia Vol XX No. 4, August 2000.


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August 7, 2013, 02:57 PM
 Strange how humans too seek each other.