First of all it is very important to understand and keep in mind what “Social Network Analysis” really means. Basically the main objective of SNA is to map and measure the different relations and flows between people, organizations, groups and any other connected information/knowledge entity.
As we know, nowadays this type of research could be used for many different reasons, for example: To help re-structure the organization chart of a company, to help solve cases related to terrorism, to help determined and prevent the spread of a disease, and so on.
After analyzing the many different ways SNA could be helpful to the Human Beings, I was wondering how could it work and be helpful to the animals (Just because I love them and the world wouldn’t be the same without them). What I found out was really interesting, and not only people have done many different analysis related to animals using SNA, but by using this type of tool the welfare of the animals can actually improve. A clear example of this is:
It’s a known fact that the well-being of the animals has not been taken into account when a Zoo is being designed. In other words, not only the animals sometimes don’t have enough space to live comfortably, but their behavior is not taken into consideration at the moment of placing them with other animals. Nonetheless, due to this problem, many Zoos exhibits are being re-designed for the animal’s physical and psychological well-being. I believe that Social Network Analysis could play a really important role in the improvement of how Zoos are re-designed.
Facts and Important SNA measures:
Recently, SNA has been discovered and used by different behavioral biologists, who try to understand and analyze the animal behavior. Thanks to many different investigations, the biologists have come to the conclusion that this could actually be a great tool in the management of captive animal populations.
When it comes to animal behavior, the most important SNA measures are:
● Prominence (Centrality and Centralization): The idea is to identify the “Important” or “Key” actors, and the best way to do this is using centrality measures, in other words, the idea is to have a clear idea of: The degrees, closeness, betweenness and eigenvalue centrality.
● Range: To evaluate the Range, the different metrics that can be used are: Reach (Number of nodes that can be reached within a specified distance, and can be used to evaluate the influence of indirect relationships on behavior or dominance rank) and Diameter (How many steps are necessary to get from one side of a network to another).
● Cohesion: The following metrics can be used to identify the roles that specific animals play in maintaining cohesion in a network: Centralization, betweenness, cutpoints, density, reciprocity, community structure and transitivity (Clustering Coefficient).
● Structural Equivalence: Could help evaluate dominance or other hierarchical relationships in some animal groups.
● Brokerage: It can be useful for looking at the bridges of connections between animal subgroups with different attributes
What SNA can do in this case, is give important information related to the interaction between the social structures of the animals and the group stability, with the idea of managing aggression related to the remix of the animals (There are many cases where putting the wrong animals together could create serious damage).
How can you collect the Data?:
Of course in this case it’s not possible to collect information through surveys and newspapers (Which are the normal ways to do it). Here the best thing to do is to record the animals at least during 48 hours, where specialists can observe their behavior as a group and as an individual, this way it’s easier to review it as many times as possible to truly understand their actions. Some of the factors that need to be taken into account are: Enclosure and group size, length of time in the social group, weather conditions, visitor numbers, feeding methods/resource distributions.
How can the SNA be helpful?:
SNA can provide the right information that can help understand different points related to captive animals; here I will mention a few of them:
1. By randomly removing an animal from a highly interconnected network, could have less effect on the group stability than removing animals from a less cohesive group.
2. By adding animals to a group may have the least effect when animals within that group are loosely connected (This could be indicated by low density, high diameter or low global clustering coefficient)
3. It is crucial to understand and identify who are the individuals (Animals) who maintain the group cohesiveness to have a clear idea of which are the animals that can be moved. For this, the best option is to calculate the individual-level centrality measures (Including betweenness or eigenvalue centrality). It’s important to take into account that it’s possible to find an animal that acts as a bridge between different subgroups, and their removal from the group could create serious divisions.
4. SNA not only helps to have a more effective animal management, but also gives us a better understanding of interactions within the groups, so at the moment of wanting for example to reintroduce a group into their natural environment, it can be more carefully planned.
5. Knowing the Indegree and Outdegree of the animals can tell us how well connected they are. This will tell us the importance of each animal, in theory the more contact the animal has, the more central it would be, in other words, the more influence it would have.
6. It can be easier to observe through SNA which are the kinship ties, sharing resources (Food of territories) and social interactions (Dominance, hierarchies, grooming, and so on).
The idea of being able to assess compatibilities between the different animals that live in a Zoo, is not only to improve animal management, but to increase the breeding success within the groups and decrease the aggression between them. Nowadays places that keep captive animals are trying to make their lives less stressful and be more responsible to nature, and even though it’s really hard to know what an animal is thinking and feeling, hopefully with the help of monitors that can record the animal’s behavior and with a SNA tool, it will be much easier to achieve this goal.