False alarms and information transmission in grouping animals

Leah Gray*, Michael M. Webster

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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A key benefit of grouping in prey species is access to social information, including information about the presence of predators. Larger groups of prey animals respond both sooner and at greater distances from predators, increasing the likelihood that group members will successfully avoid capture. However, identifying predators in complex environments is a difficult task, and false alarms (alarm behaviours without genuine threat) appear surprisingly frequent across a range of taxa including insects, amphibians, fish, mammals, and birds. In some bird flocks, false alarms have been recorded to substantially outnumber true alarms. False alarms can be costly in terms of both the energetic costs of producing alarm behaviours as well as lost opportunity costs (e.g. abandoning a feeding patch which was in fact safe, losing sleep if an animal is resting/roosting, or losing mating opportunities). Models have shown that false alarms may be a substantial but underappreciated cost of group living, introducing an inherent risk to using social information and a vulnerability to the propagation of false information. This review will focus on false alarms, introducing a two-stage framework to categorise the different factors hypothesised to influence the propensity of animal groups to produce false alarms. A number of factors may affect false alarm rate, and this new framework splits these factors into two core processing stages: (i) individual perception and response; and (ii) group processing of predator information. In the first stage, individuals in the group monitor the environment for predator cues and respond. The factors highlighted in this stage influence the likelihood that an individual will misclassify stimuli and produce a false alarm (e.g. lower light levels can make predator identification more difficult and false alarms more common). In the second stage, alarm information from individuals is processed by the group. The factors highlighted in this stage influence the likelihood of alarm information being copied by group members and propagated through the group (e.g. some animals implement group processing mechanisms that regulate the spread of behavioural responses such as consensus decision making through the quorum response). This review follows the structure of this new framework, focussing on the causes of false alarms, factors that influence false alarm rate, the transmission of alarm information through animal groups, mechanisms to mitigate the spread of false alarms, and the consequences of false alarms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)833-848
Number of pages16
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number3
Early online date18 Jan 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023


  • Alarm
  • False alarm
  • Group behaviour
  • Information transmission
  • Predator-prey
  • Social information
  • Vigilance


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