Larger groups are more successful in innovative problem solving in house sparrows

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Group living offers well-known benefits to animals, such as better predator avoidance and increased foraging success. An important additional, but so far neglected, advantage is that groups may cope more effectively with unfamiliar situations through faster innovations of new solutions by some group members. We tested this hypothesis experimentally by presenting a new foraging task of opening a familiar feeder in an unfamiliar way to house sparrows in small and large groups (2 versus 6 birds). Group size had strong effects on problem solving: sparrows performed 4 times more and 11 times faster openings in large than in small groups, and all members of large groups profited by getting food sooner (7 times on average). Independently from group size, urban groups were more successful than rural groups. The disproportionately higher success in large groups was not a mere consequence of higher number of attempts, but was also related to a higher effectiveness of problem solving (3 times higher proportion of successful birds). The analyses of the birds' behavior suggest that the latter was not explained by either reduced investment in antipredator vigilance or reduced neophobia in large groups. Instead, larger groups may contain more diverse individuals with different skills and experiences, which may increase the chance of solving the task by some group members. Increased success in problem solving may promote group living in animals and may help them to adapt quickly to new situations in rapidly-changing environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7893-7898
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - May 12 2009


  • Effectiveness
  • Foraging
  • Group size
  • Innovation
  • Urbanization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General

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