Social networks are a matter of life and death…if you are a monkey!

For teenagers, the number of Facebook friends is a sign of popularity, but the number of relationships in a macaque monkey’s social network can literally be a matter of life or death, according to university researchers.

Posted: 9 November 2015

image for news story Social networks are a matter of life and death…if you are a monkey!
A new study by scientists from the University of Roehampton in London, University of Lincoln and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found the survival of wild Barbary macaques in Morocco during a severe winter depended on their position in their social network. Much like Facebook, the number of relationships, not the strength or quality of them was the key. The research further showed that social networks based on aggression were better suited to predict survival than those based on grooming and friendly contact.

In the brutally cold winter of 2008-09, 65% of the two groups of Barbary macaque studied by the scientists died – most likely of starvation. Only 17 monkeys survived into the spring. In order to understand why some monkeys made it through, while others perished, the team analysed data on their behaviour in the six months before to test the idea that social integration was important in determining survival. The results, published this week in the Journal of Behavioral Ecology, were surprising. Although several measures of relationship quality were used in the analysis, the research confirmed that quantity matters more than quality: the number of social interaction partners a monkey had was the strongest predictor of survival.

Dr Julia Lehmann from the University of Roehampton’s Department of Life Sciences said: “Perhaps teenagers are not so different from monkeys after all. Young people might compete to rake up as many friends and twitter followers as they can, even if they are not close personal friends for life, but this may indeed convey advantages. At least for macaques the number of interaction partners really does make the difference in terms of staying alive. Our study provides unique insights into which features of social relationships provide survival benefits to individual monkeys. We found that not only the number of interaction partners but also the clustering of these interactions between individuals was critical for macaques when they were pushed to their limits, as happened in this extremely cold winter.”

The research team now plans to explore how the disappearance of individuals affects the social network of those individuals that survived the winter and how well social networks following the disappearance of individuals can be predicted in advance.

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