Behavioral sequences across multiple animal species in the wild share common structural features

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Animal behavior can be decomposed into a continuous sequence of discrete activity bouts over time. Analyzing the statistical structure of such behavioral sequences provides insights into the drivers of behavioral decisions in animals. Laboratory studies, predominantly in invertebrates, have suggested that behavioral sequences are characterized by multiple timescales and exhibit long-range memory, but the extent to which these results can be generalized to other taxa and to animals living in natural settings remains unclear. By analyzing accelerometer-inferred predictions of behavioral states in three species of social mammals (meerkats, white-nosed coatis, and spotted hyenas) in the wild, we discovered surprisingly consistent structuring of behavioral sequences across all behavioral states, all individuals and all study species. Behavioral bouts were characterized by decreasing hazard functions, wherein the longer a behavioral bout had progressed, the less likely it was to end within the next instant. The predictability of an animal’s future behavioral state as a function of its present state always decreased as a truncated power law for predictions made farther into the future, with very similar estimates for the power law exponent across all three species. Finally, the distributions of bout durations were also heavy-tailed (typically truncated power-law or lognormal). These patterns suggest similar structural principles in behavioral sequences across all study species. Why such shared patterns emerge remains unknown. We explore multiple plausible explanations, including environmental non-stationarity, behavioral self-reinforcement via positive feedback, or a combination of multiple relevant timescales driven by the hierarchical nature of behavior. The existence of highly consistent patterns in behavioral sequences across all three study species suggests that these phenomena could be widespread in nature, and points to the existence of fundamental properties of behavioral dynamics that could drive such convergent patterns.

Significance statement

The study of animal behavior seeks to understand how and why animals do what they do. This pursuit of general principles governing behavior across species can be approached by first understanding when animals choose to change their behavioral states (e.g., switching from walking to standing, or to running). Using accelerometer-inferred behaviors of three social mammals, we uncover common structural patterns in their sequences of behavior. We explore two explanations, involving either positive feedbacks or the interaction of several independent time-scales, about how such common patterns arise.

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  1. or each behavior, all individuals seem to exhibit very similar bout duration distributions.

    It is hard not to notice that the distributions for certain states (e.g. Meerkat vigilant/resting state) are noisier than others. It would be interesting to see a comparison of the variance of these distributions as a function of species and/or state to see if the claim in this sentence is statistically supported.