Animal Social Networks


Social network analysis (SNA) is a powerful tool that allows researchers to understand and quantify the structure and dynamics of animal societies. It is particularly useful for studying the transmission of disease, information and culture in groups and within populations and the evolution of cooperation, but is likely to be applicable for almost any subject that involves animals interacting with one another. Social networks can be potentially constructed using any association or interaction as long as a significant proportion of the focal group/population is individually identifiable. Once networks are constructed summary metrics can be extracted and used to answer the questions of interest. Care must be taken to make sure that the metrics used are appropriate for the hypotheses under test. The continuous advances in technology mean that SNA is becoming more and more widespread and increasingly relevant to understanding animal societies.

Key Concepts:

  • All animal societies can potentially be studied using social network analysis.

  • Social networks incorporate all the relationships among individuals within a group at the same time, rather than focussing on relationships between pairs of individuals, so are more realistic than traditional approaches.

  • Social network analysis has provided important insights into a wide‚Äźrange of areas, from the structure of complex societies to the transmission of information and disease within groups and the evolution of cooperation.

  • It is possible to incorporate spatial and temporal information when analysing networks of social relationships.

  • Social network analysis can also be useful in conservation, for example, management of endangered species, as well as theoretical studies.

  • There are many ways of building networks and numerous network metrics available for describing nodes and networks, making social network analysis valuable for many research questions.

  • Advances in technology are making it easier to apply social network analysis to animal societies.

Keywords: social networks; disease transmission; group dynamics; social behaviour; conservation biology; social evolution; wildlife management; population ecology

Figure 1.

Toy sociogram (visualisation of network) showing nodes (filled circles) and edges (connecting lines) between three clusters of individuals within a group. Width of line is used to represent the strength of the edge, colour represents sex. The blue node connecting all three main clusters has the potential to be a ‘super‐spreader’ of information or disease through the network as a whole due to its high betweenness.

Figure 2.

Toy matrices showing data for SNA. (a) Binary symmetric matrix of an undirected relationship (e.g. association – nodes were either seen together (1) or not (0)); (b) half‐weight symmetric matrix of association (AA and CC were seen together in 37% of observations); (c) asymmetric matrix of a directed behaviour (e.g. aggression) and (d) asymmetric matrix showing movement of individuals between sites.



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Further Reading

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Downing, Beatrice C, and Royle, Nick J(Jun 2013) Animal Social Networks. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024661]