Turing’s Maths Helps Identify Patterns In Bird Behaviour

Long tailed tits tend to congregate in small groupings of about 20 birds. And now some scientists at the University of Sheffield have looked into this behaviour and why these little birds avoid large flocks.

To do this the researchers employed mathematical models developed by genius Alan Turing.

They used the equations Turing developed to understand spots and stripes in animals to look at patterns of behaviour across the landscape they inhabit.

Natasha Ellison, PhD student at the University of Sheffield who led the study, said:

“Mathematical models help us understand nature in an extraordinary amount of ways and our study is a fantastic example of this.

“Long-tailed tits are too small to be fitted with GPS trackers like larger animals, so researchers follow these tiny birds on foot, listening for bird calls and identifying birds with binoculars.

“The field work is extremely time consuming and without the help of these mathematical models these behaviours wouldn’t have been discovered.”

It was previously unknown why flocks of long-tailed tits live in separate parts of the same area, despite there being plenty of food to sustain multiple flocks and the birds not showing territorial behaviour.

The work forms part of the University of Sheffield’s Mathematical Biology Group, which brings together researchers from the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics and the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. The research was published in the Journal of Animal Ecology

Long tailed Tit at Upton Country Park credit: Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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