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Models developed by Alan Turing used to study bird behaviour

Mathematical models designed by Alan Turing have helped scientists learn why birds segregate themselves into different parts of the landscape during flight.

Experts from the University of Sheffield used the models Turing built to describe how animals get their spotted and striped patterns int he study of birds.   

The team tracked the path long-tailed tits take around Sheffield’s Rivelin Valley and watched until the birds eventually produced a pattern across the landscape.

They used the models to reveal the behaviours that caused these patterns including the fact the birds are less likely to avoid places they have interacted with relatives. 

PhD student, Natasha Ellison, led the study and said mathematical models can help us understand nature in an extraordinary number of ways. 

‘Long-tailed tits are too small to be fitted with GPS trackers like larger animals, so researchers follow these tiny birds on foot, listening for bird calls and identifying birds with binoculars,’ said Ellison.

‘The field work is extremely time consuming and without the help of these mathematical models these behaviours wouldn’t have been discovered.’

Flocks of long-tailed tits are less likely to avoid places where they have interacted with relatives and more likely to avoid larger flocks, they found.

This comes whilst the birds prefer the centre of woodland, according to the findings published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

It was previously unknown why the birds live in separate parts of the same area, despite there being plenty of food to sustain multiple flocks. 

The equations used to understand the birds are similar to those developed by Mr Turing to describe how animals get their spotted and striped patterns.

The maths helps determine if patterns are going to appear in the womb as the animal grows and the study used that to look for patterns across the landscape.  .

Territorial animals often live in segregated areas that they aggressively defend and stay close to their den, the researchers say.

Before the study, mathematical ideas had been used to understand the patterns made by territorial animals such as coyotes, meerkats and even human gangs.

However, this study was the first to use the ideas on non-territorial animals with no den pinning them in place.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

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