Posts tagged ‘emergence’

Ecosystems and Economies

A Poverty trap is a self-perpetuating condition where an economy, financial or otherwise, gets caught in one or more maladaptive feedback loops.  Once started, it becomes a self-perpetuating process possibly suggesting that the long run performance of an economy is greatly affected the initial conditions it is created in.

To avoid the pratfalls of poverty, humans sometimes form cooperative ventures.  This allows us to pool resources, reduce exposure to risks and increase potential gains. Other animals who live cooperatively,  like wolves and bonobos, employ similar tactics.

From ScienceDaily:

Over a 20-year period, Gregory Rasmussen, currently at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, intensively studied every move of African wild dogs in Zimbabwe to the extent of “living with packs” for periods of up to a month in order to work out how much energy they were spending eating, sleeping, and running. He came to the conclusion that “whilst to date we have seen poverty traps as being something intrinsically human, they are not!”

Nature’s currency is energy, and in theory, keeping the cost of living low leaves more in the “piggy bank” for reproduction. However, staying in nature’s fast lane isn’t easy, and necessitates that evolution comes up with a “business plan” to bank energy (nature’s surrogate for wealth!) to survive. In the face of bigger competitors like lions and hyenas, whose larger stomachs cater for irregular meals, and which maximize returns by having low foraging costs, the dogs’ evolved a unique plan. Now highly endangered, the African wild dog opted for extreme metabolic adaptations to running, thus ensuring they caught a regular supply of food, and by forming packs, had many runners to reduce capture costs and stomachs to maximize on the returns.

This great strategy, however, has an Achilles heel as packs fewer than five are less effective hunters, and thus have to undertake energetically expensive extra hunts to secure their prey. The results from this study highlighted a weakness in the business plan, for when the financial energetic annual accounts were done, the benefits of having fewer individuals to feed in a smaller packs was outweighed by the greater costs of running. To chase their prey, wild dogs need to be lithe and athletic, a design that ensures their stomachs can’t be too big, which in turn limits the amount they can gorge in a sitting: a physical limitation on their gluttony which biologist call “a morphological constraint.”

Yikes – while the lions and hyenas evolved to play it safe – maintaining a safety net in the cash energy stowed away in their savings accounts bellies and fat deposits – wild dogs are adaptively forced into living from paycheck to paycheck. They manage to get along well enough until they get sick and don’t get paid can’t make a kill, have unexpected bills to pay need to feed a large litter of pups or experience other economic setback.  According to Rasmussen:

In the same way that Size Zero women can struggle to have children, and bouncing babies, this study highlighted an Achilles heel where energetic poverty translated into reproductive poverty, and a vicious circle whereby small packs have fewer pups, leading to even smaller packs, and driving them into an extinctive vortex.

From a conservation standpoint, these results demonstrate how evolutionary strength gained by sociality can be undermined by an Achilles heel that can push species into extinction. Professor David Macdonald, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, known as the WildCRU, which specializes in the science to underpin practical solution to conservation problems, said “This study, unique in its detail, shows the power of energetic theory to enable us to not only understand the evolution of packing power, and facets that dictate the survival of this stunningly beautiful species, but better understand how to conserve other social species of which we are one.”

From an article on

The poverty trap really starts to bite as pack sizes fall below five and their low hunt success rate means that the dogs have to undertake energy-expensive extra hunts, leaving even less energy for reproduction.’

Economically speaking – when you’re a wild dog living in a small pack, you’re going to have to hold down a second job just to get by. And that second job isn’t going to leave you much time for dating or other hanky-panky.

‘This study shows the extraordinary power of cooperation in animal societies,’ said co-author Professor David Macdonald, Director of the WildCRU. ‘Understanding the relationship between energy and cooperation is not only important to the survival of these stunningly beautiful, yet highly endangered, wild dogs but understanding the value of ‘pack power’ helps us better appreciate the principles that have driven the evolution of our own social lives.’

The stability of wild dog populations is strongly affected by habitat fragmentation. Persecution by humans and adverse affects from adjacent domestic dog populations (predation, disease transmission, competition for resources) also impact them directly. Because of their sensitivity to these factors, wild dogs are considered to be an important indicator species of the sub-Saharan Serengeti and Kalahari ecosystems.

(Maybe we should be studing them as an indicator species for our financial environment?)

The IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group’s African Wild Dog Status Survey and Action Plan discusses the factors that could cause the few remaining viable populations of wild dogs to decline or disappear.  They include:

Habitat fragmentation, persecution and loss of prey – considered to be the primary causes for the decline in wild dog populations.  Likely represent the principal threat to them today.

Competition with larger carnivores – limits both population (through predation and competition for resources) and available territory. These pressures mean that many wild dog packs now exist as small, fragmented groups. 

Contact with human activity– found to be responsible for more than 60% of recorded adult mortality through a combination of road kill and hunting.  Wild dogs that live in wildlife preserves range during hunting activies so they are often not adequately protected within these artificial territorial borders.

Disease– is a serious threat to modern wild dogs because domestic dogs that share their habitat are a vector for canine parasites and diseases.

Any one of these factors can disturb a population.  Add one or more of them together, and the adverse effects can quickly reach a threshold where the results are catastrophic. Once the population within a pack drops below the tipping point, a place where the emergent factors of these processes take over – the budget energy balance quickly falls into a series of maladaptive feedback loops and the stockmarket population crashes. It’s a poverty trap.

Like us, wild dogs live in a wide range of environments.  Different stressors affect each pack in a different way. This has made efforts to improve their survival extremely difficult – and to date, researchers have had little success.  Not only have they found that management techniques that work for one pack can prove to be disastrous for another – but in some cases, intervention by scientists appeared to hasten or cause population crashes.

In the lives of wild dogs and in our human economy, there are a lot of factors that function together in an incredibly complex way to produce a poverty trap. There are hundreds of traps out there to fall into, and when we intervene in an attempt to pull the wild dogs or our economy out of one trap – we all too often find that what we’ve done has just pushed it into another.

There aren’t any simple answers to our problems with wild dogs or with the economy. Economies and ecosystems are complex systems with emergent qualities. Healthy ones tend to be resiliant – when perturbed, they return to a stable state on their own – without an external control. But when we try to solve problems associated with these complex processes with simple fixes, unintended consequences are not only possible – they are likely to occur.

October 22, 2008 at 5:17 am Leave a comment

Robo Collie

A small black and white form enters the circular arena, gathers a flock of ducks and skillfully maneuvers them safely to their pen.  But Rover’s work wasn’t guided by a shepherd, it was modeled by a computer programmer.

Ten years ago researchers at PennState used a computer model simulating the ducks ‘ flocking behaviour to design a herding algorithm. The algorithm was initially tested in computer simulations then tranferred  to a robot that was used to herd ducks. It was reported as the first case of a robot system used to control an animal behavior in a useful way.

“Rover” is a vertical cylinder on wheels. designed to work outdoors on short grass. It can accelerate to 9 mph and outrun the ducks. It’s about a foot tall, 19 inches in diameter and cushioned in plastic to keep the ducks safe.  The system includes the mobile robot vehicle that herds the ducks, a computer and a camera. Camer images are analyzed by the computer to control the robot. Given a pre-programmed goal, the program uses a flocking algorithm to determine a path for the robot.

 Robo-Collie aka “Rover”

The Robot Sheepdog Project (RSP) was a collaboration between the Silsoe Research Institute and the universities of Bristol, Leeds and Oxford. 

According to the Robot Sheepdog Project website:

This may sound straightforward, but nothing like it has ever been tried before; we had to design the robot, guess the correct mathematical model, and implement it whilst ensuring that the ducks were never harmed! To do this we first relied a lot on simulation, and on seeing whether the mathematical model gave simulated results that “looked right” to expert duck herders. Finally, the system was tried with real ducks, and was shown to be capable of herding a flock of ducks from one end of an arena to a specified position at the other end.

The Spatial Reasoning research group is continuing the research work, but using robot sheep as well as robot sheepdogs to extend the theories without the complications of dealing with real animals.

The project uses a collection of small wheeled mobile robots, each of which can act as a sheep or a dog. The “sheep” behave according to a pre-programmed flocking model, whereas the “dogs” are controlled through an external PC. The dogs can be driven by a human using a joystick, or can be programmed to herd the sheep to a predetermined point.

Fascinating… but why go to so much effort when real sheepdogs do this work so well?  According to an article published by Simon Frasier University:

The sheepdog’s gather-and-fetch task was chosen because of its familiarity and the strong interaction between the dog, shepherd and flock animals. Using ducks instead of sheep allows us to experiment on a conveniently small scale, in a controlled indoor environment.  Duck flocking behaviour is recognised by shepherds as similar to sheep; ducks are often used to train sheepdogs because of their relatively slow movement. 

Flocking is considered an adaptive behaviour, as it a affords various advantages in hazard-avoidance, mating and foraging. Models of flocking behaviour exist in the literature and are generally derived from Hamilton’s observation that flocking may be produced by the mass action of individual animals, each seeking the proximity of its nearest neighbours. 

Similar models have produced realistic computer animations of bird flocks.  The best-known of these is Boids.  Boids, developed by Craig Reynolds in 1986, is an artificial life program, simulating the flocking behaviour of birds.  From Wikipedia:

As with most artificial life simulations, Boids is an example of emergent behavior; that is, the complexity of Boids arises from the interaction of individual agents (the boids, in this case) adhering to a set of simple rules. The rules applied in the simplest Boids world are as follows:

  • separation : steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
  • alignment : steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
  • cohesion : steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates


More complex rules can be added, such as obstacle avoidance and goal seeking.

A Boids Java applet that allows you to change program inputs and includes optional predators is available here.  If you tweak it a bit you can program it to have one predator that ‘herds’ boids that get separated back into the flock.

October 16, 2008 at 3:07 am 1 comment

Wild Dogs at Play

Speaking of dogs at play, today we’re posting some excellent stuff from Wildcast, filmmaker Kim Wolhuter’s blog about work on his latest documentary project on African wild dogs:

First a clip of littermates packing up on a pup.  What’s the point here?  Well, what they’re doing looks an awful lot like the jockeying for position seen in the next clip which shows the pups feeding on an impala carcass.  Is it practice?  Are they testing to see what positions they hold in the pack?  And how is the ‘victim’ chosen?  As the narrator notes, he doesn’t really seem to mind playing the part.

Here’s another clip of the pups at play. You can see them chasing each other, wrestling and engaging in a rousing game of “I’ve got the stick.”  I found it interesting to see how often they paired up in different ways during this play session:

Here’s an interesting clip that appears to show play as redirection.  The mother dog seems to be trying to use play to take her pups’ attention off a carcass.  Is her goal to get more food for herself?  Probably not as she ate before the pups.  Perhaps her goal is to keep their jockeying for position over the remains of this carcass from getting out of hand?

Is there a simple way to describe the rules of play?  I think not.  Play, like most intelligent behavior, is strongly controlled by emergent factors.  Young animals at play are, in part, learning to affect each other’s behavior through a complex mixture of cooperative and competitive interactions. Some of these interections (like Puzzle’s redirection of the squabbling puppies) begin as independent actions and others arise though interaction with others. 

In emergence simple interactions between individuals produces complex, yet organized, group behavior. The fact that such behavior is both organized and chaotic explains the unpredictability of animal behavior.

And – doesn’t part of the joy we find in play come from that fact that the rules for it (unlike the rules we have for work) are fluid?

October 14, 2008 at 7:14 pm 2 comments

Canine Chivalry

From today’s edition of Discovery News:

It may not be such a dog-eat-dog world after all, at least among our canine friends. A new study has found that young male dogs playing with female pups will often let the females win, even if the males have a physical advantage.

Male dogs sometimes place themselves in potentially disadvantageous positions that could make them more vulnerable to attack, and researchers suspect the opportunity to play may be more important to them than winning.

Such self-handicapping has been documented before in red-necked wallabies, squirrel monkeys, hamadryas baboons and even humans, all of which frequently take on defensive positions when playing with youngsters, in particular.

Chivalry may have largely disappeared from our human world, but it seems our dogs still adhere to a system of virtue and courtly love.  I’ve seen it here.  When Zip was a tiny (less than 10-pound) puppy Zorro liked to let her win at tug of war games.  Zorro was an enormous (120-pound), strong-willed beast.  Before we fixed the problem, he loved to fight with other male dogs.  But he was a complete and utter pushover for little Zippy.  He and Loki (who out-weighed Zorro by 20 pounds) would lie down to entice her to play with them.  They’d let her jump on them, nip at them, and tug on their ears.  They always let her win.

Now it’s Audie’s turn.  Audie’s an intact, teenage goon and he’s twice Zip’s size.  It took him a while to figure it out, but he’s learned that if he lies on his back and stays generally horizontal, Zip will wrestle and play tug with him.  If he gets rough with her or takes the toy away, she ends the play and stomps off in a snit.

There’s a lot of disagreement in the scientific community about the functions of play.  Obvious benefits include skills practice and the development of affiliative bonds.  An interesting question regarding the bond-forming functions of play are the extent to which it is “fair.” Some researchers argue that for play to continue over time, winning and losing roles must be generally equal.  Others argue that both animals will “play to win,” especially during play-fighting.  This new research indicates that, as is the case for most interesting questions, the real answer to the question of how fair play needs to be, is “it depends.”

Dynamic systems theory views social relationships as complex, emergent systems that change over time. Behavior can sometimes be more clearly understood through bidirectional causation, feedback loops and emergent patterns instead of simple reaction chains.  What are emergent patterns?  According to Wikipedia: “Emergent phenomena occur due to the pattern of interactions between the elements of a system over time. Emergent phenomena are often unexpected, nontrivial results of relatively simple interactions of relatively simple components.”  In other words, emergence arises when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. 

Complex behavior tends to have emergent properties.  This is why it is, to a large degree, so unpredictable.  So, while playing to win may be a smart strategy when one is play-fighting with someone who may be a competitor, it can be a bad idea when one is playing with a potential mate or ally.  According to Discovery News young male dogs will let females win in play because:

They might lose the game in the short run, but they could win at love in the future.

“We know that in feral dog populations, female mate choice plays a role in male mating success,” said Ward. “Perhaps males use self-handicapping with females in order to learn more about them and to form close relationships with them — relationships that might later help males to secure future mating opportunities.”

And it’s not just romance that matters.  It appears that many types of social conventions are involved during the role reversals that occur in play.  Role reversals occurred frequently during chasing and tackling games, but very rarely during mounting or muzzle biting.  This may indicate that mounting and muzzle biting are more important indicators of established dominance roles. The use of signals, like play bows, was linked strongly to self-handicapping behavior (i.e. letting the weaker dog win) but not to chase behavior, possibly indicating that chasing is a very basic form of play behavior that needs no formal introduction.

Rowan - a young, dane mix boy - entices Zip to play. He employs a deep play bow because he wants to wrestle.

October 11, 2008 at 1:02 am 6 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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