Group-enhanced predator detection and quality of vigilance in a social ground squirrel.
van der Marel, Annemarie
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Animals may form groups for different reasons, and one major benefit of grouping in many species is reduced predation risk. In diurnal species, vigilance is used to detect predators, resulting in a trade-off between feeding activity and predation risk. Species can reduce the cost of this trade-off with low-quality vigilance – performing another behaviour while vigilant – in comparison to high-quality vigilance, i.e., only being vigilant. Two non-mutually exclusive hypotheses explaining an inverse relationship between individual vigilance and group size are the dilution effect, where predation risk decreases in larger groups, and collective detection, where larger groups have more individuals that may detect a predator. Two predictions that support collective detection but not the dilution effect are that 1) overall group vigilance (collective vigilance) will increase with increasing group size, even while individual vigilance decreases, and 2) at least one group member must be vigilant to detect potential danger and communicate that information to group members. To test these predictions, we recorded behavioural data on low- and high-quality vigilance and alarm calling in the gregarious Barbary ground squirrel, Atlantoxerus getulus. Barbary ground squirrels allocated more time to high-quality vigilance than low-quality vigilance. The collective detection hypothesis was partly supported: as group size increased, individual low- and high-quality vigilance did not decrease, but collective high-quality vigilance did increase. Furthermore, we found repetitive alarm calling warned group members of terrestrial threats. Longer call durations informed group members of a terrestrial versus an aerial or unobserved predator. Our results showed that this invasive species displays specific anti-predator behaviours to different aerial and terrestrial predators compared to predators in their native range. The low level of time allocated to low-quality vigilance indicates that natural selection strongly favours high-quality vigilance in this species despite the trade-off with foraging. Our study broadens our understanding of anti-predator and risk-sensitive behaviour.