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Barbary ground squirrels do not have a sentinel system but instead synchronize vigilance
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology  (IF2.98),  Pub Date : 2021-10-16, DOI: 10.1007/s00265-021-03094-1
van der Marel, Annemarie, Waterman, Jane M., López-Darias, Marta


Coordinated behaviors, such as hunting in lions and coordinated vigilance as antipredator behavior, are examples of benefits of group-living. Instead of asynchronous vigilance, some social species synchronize their vigilance bouts or take turns acting as sentinels. To increase our knowledge on the evolution of vigilance behavior, we studied whether vigilance is coordinated in Barbary ground squirrels, Atlantoxerus getulus. We show that vigilance was synchronized instead of taking turns. Multiple non-mutually exclusive hypotheses could explain synchronization: Barbary ground squirrels may perch because (1) neighbors are perched (copying effect), (2) perch synchrony may be an emergent property of the ecology as all squirrels may be satiated at the same time (collective behavior), or (3) the benefits are large in terms of evading ambush predators and scanning effectiveness (watch each other’s back). Particularly, in habitats where the field of view is obstructed by man-made structures and multiple individuals may be necessary to watch for terrestrial predators, synchronized vigilance may have greater fitness benefits than sentinel behavior. We conclude that it is essential to test assumptions of coordination and, thus, to analyze coordination to describe sentinel systems.

Significance statement

Vigilance behavior can be vital to an animal’s survival. Taking turns acting as sentinels or synchronizing vigilance bouts reduces the cost of the trade-off between feeding and predation risk. A sentinel system assumes that sentinels are vigilant from raised positions, warn group members of danger, and alternate vigilance bouts. However, the assumption of alternating vigilance bouts remains poorly tested. We tested this assumption in invasive Barbary ground squirrels. We found that instead of alternating, individuals synchronized their vigilance bouts. Perch synchrony may be (1) a response to perching group members (copying effect), (2) an emergent property of the species’ ecology, and (3) an adaptation to anthropogenically altered habitats (watch each other’s back).