Leadership, social learning, and the maintenance (or collapse) of migratory populations

William F. Fagan, Robert Stephen Cantrell, Chris Cosner, Thomas Mueller, Andrew E. Noble

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Long-distance animal migrations are complex, population-level phenomena that emerge in seasonal landscapes as a result of the interplay between environmental influences (e. g., resources, predators) and social interactions among conspecifics. When landscapes change with respect to phenology or connectivity, the dynamics of migratory species can abruptly shift, in many cases leading to a cessation of migration and dramatic decreases in population size. We develop a difference equation modeling framework to explore how the social transfer of knowledge from informed "leader" individuals enhances the performance of seasonally migratory versus resident populations. The model permits a wide range of population-level behaviors including alternative stable states, partial migration equilibria, and complex dynamics, but we focus our efforts on investigations of migration collapse mediated by a lack of informed leaders that can arise from changes in landscape structure, survivorship, reproduction, and/or social learning. Migration collapse is a hysteretic phenomenon in this model and results either in extinction of the population or purely resident behavior. The hysteretic nature of migration failure, which hinges on cultural transmission of knowledge, highlights a potentially critical role for behavior and social learning in aspects of spatial ecology and conservation biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)253-264
Number of pages12
JournalTheoretical Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2012


  • Hysteresis
  • Leadership
  • Migration
  • Migratory movements
  • Population collapse
  • Range residency
  • Social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Ecological Modeling


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