Even in a crowd, you remain unique

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WASHINGTON - It may be the height of paradox, but being part of a crowd is what gives you individuality, according to life scientists.

Biologists Kimberly Pollard and Daniel Blumstein from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), examined the evolution of individuality by recording alarm-call vocalizations in eight species of rodents in social groups of various sizes.

They found that the size of the groups strongly predicted the individual uniqueness in the animals’ voices - the bigger the group, the more unique each animal’s voice typically was and the easier it was to tell individuals apart, the journal Current Biology reports.

The findings - resulting from six years of research by Blumstein, UCLA professor in evolutionary biology, and Pollard, who worked as doctoral student in Blumstein’s lab - may help explain why everybody is different, according to a UCLA statement.

The reason, the researchers say, is a ‘Where’s Waldo’ effect in which it is difficult to pick one individual out of a crowd, and the bigger the crowd, the harder it is.

“But humans and other social creatures can’t just give up when crowds get large,” said Pollard, the study’s lead author. “We still must be able to identify our friends, our family and our rivals within that crowd”.

The species that had to contend with bigger crowds did so with more unique voices, the researchers found. The larger the social group, the easier it was to tell any two individual animals apart.

“Nature has solved the ‘Where’s Waldo’ problem by endowing highly social creatures with more unique features, which helps them find their pals in the crowd,” said Pollard, currently a post-doctoral scholar at the US Army Research Lab in Maryland.

Filed under: Society

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