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Scientists map 'Facebook for birds'

Roy and Marie Battell

A male great tit takes wing: Scientists find that the birds develop tight social connections.

The social network isn't limited to humans: Researchers at Oxford University have organized millions of observations of birds known as great tits into a "Facebook for animals" — and have found that the birds, like us, tend to form tight-knit circles of friends.

After you've finished tittering over the name of the bird species — which is also known by its scientific name, Parus major — you might appreciate the other similarities between Facebook affiliations and the birds' real-world interactions. For example, the strongest social connections link the birds with their mating partners or mates-to-be. As is the case with Facebook check-ins, geographical proximity increases the likelihood of social interaction. And there are ample examples of "friend of a friend" interrelationships.

It's not as if the animal world has suddenly logged onto social media. Rather, the study demonstrates that social media such as Facebook reflect the characteristics found in the social networks that are formed naturally by humans, birds and other species.

"From a purely engineering perspective, I would say there are similarities" between Facebook and the great-tit network, Oxford's Ioannis Psorakis, the lead author of a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, told me today.

The study builds upon data collected between 2007 and 2009, showing how birds of a feather flocked together at 67 bird feeders spread throughout Wytham Woods near Oxford. Thousands of birds were outfitted with radio transponders, and millions of readings were registered from the more than 700 birds that frequented the feeders. Those readings were organized into network maps, which were compared with on-the-ground observations of feeding and mating activity.

Psorakis et al. / J.R.Soc.Interface

This network map charts the Wytham Woods great-tit social network on Sept. 9, 2007. Not all 770 birds of the 2007-2008 season were recorded during that day, and individuals with no connections have been removed from the network.

"If you think of the data about you in Facebook, it records things like who you are friends with, where you've been, and what you share with others," Psorakis said in an Oxford news release. "What we have shown is that we can analyze data about individual animals, in this case, great tits, to construct a 'Facebook for animals' revealing who affiliates with who, who are members of the same group, and which birds are regularly going to the same gatherings or 'events.'"

The researchers found that mating partners consistently belonged to the same social circles, and if two birds became mates during the time that they were being observed, that love connection was "characterized by a rapid development of network proximity." When the researchers looked beyond the birds' mating relationships, the network maps showed a number of tightly connected communities, analogous to networks of friends or family.

Psorakis emphasized that the 2007-2009 research was aimed primarily at creating the initial network maps for the great tits of Wytham Woods. "We are not yet at the prediction stage," he told me. But readings are continuing to stream in. "We are collecting hundreds of thousands of observations a day," Psorakis said.

Eventually, the data may reveal the genetic and environmental factors that promote or discourage social connections between the birds. The technique could also be applied to other species, to see how different animals form different types of networks. Psorakis noted that scientists have already studied the social networks formed by bottlenose dolphins as well as fish and killer whales.

The lessons learned from great tits may someday be applied to human relationships as well. "If we could go fast-forward 100 years from now, you could look at an individual's [Facebook] timeline and infer how, at certain points in his life, certain connections were formed," Psorakis said.

Facebook and other social networks, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, can already give you a list of potential future friends based on the network of friends you have today. How hard would it be to take that capability to the next level and suggest future lovers, future business partners ... or people to avoid? I'd love to hear what you think. Please feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

More about the social networks of animals:

In addition to Psorakis, the authors of "Inferring Social Network Structure in Ecological Systems From Spatio-temporal Data Streams" include Stephen J. Roberts, Iead Rezek and Ben C. Sheldon.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.