Mixed company: a framework for understanding the composition and organization of mixed-species animal groups

Eben Goodale, Hari Sridhar, Kathryn E. Sieving*, Priti Bangal, Gabriel J. Colorado Z., Damien R. Farine, Eckhard W. Heymann, Harrison H. Jones, Indrikis Krams, Ari E. Martínez, Flavia Montaño-Centellas, Jenny Muñoz, Umesh Srinivasan, Anne Theo, Kartik Shanker*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Citations (Scopus)


Mixed-species animal groups (MSGs) are widely acknowledged to increase predator avoidance and foraging efficiency, among other benefits, and thereby increase participants' fitness. Diversity in MSG composition ranges from two to 70 species of very similar or completely different phenotypes. Yet consistency in organization is also observable in that one or a few species usually have disproportionate importance for MSG formation and/or maintenance. We propose a two-dimensional framework for understanding this diversity and consistency, concentrating on the types of interactions possible between two individuals, usually of different species. One axis represents the similarity of benefit types traded between the individuals, while the second axis expresses asymmetry in the relative amount of benefits/costs accrued. Considering benefit types, one extreme represents the case of single-species groups wherein all individuals obtain the same supplementary, group-size-related benefits, and the other extreme comprises associations of very different, but complementary species (e.g. one partner creates access to food while the other provides vigilance). The relevance of social information and the matching of activities (e.g. speed of movement) are highest for relationships on the supplementary side of this axis, but so is competition; relationships between species will occur at points along this gradient where the benefits outweigh the costs. Considering benefit amounts given or received, extreme asymmetry occurs when one species is exclusively a benefit provider and the other a benefit user. Within this parameter space, some MSG systems are constrained to one kind of interaction, such as shoals of fish of similar species or leader–follower interactions in fish and other taxa. Other MSGs, such as terrestrial bird flocks, can simultaneously include a variety of supplementary and complementary interactions. We review the benefits that species obtain across the diversity of MSG types, and argue that the degree and nature of asymmetry between benefit providers and users should be measured and not just assumed. We then discuss evolutionary shifts in MSG types, focusing on drivers towards similarity in group composition, and selection on benefit providers to enhance the benefits they can receive from other species. Finally, we conclude by considering how individual and collective behaviour in MSGs may influence both the structure and processes of communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)889-910
Number of pages22
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes


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