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No rest for the wicked! Swans would rather fight than sleep


By Cassidy Ward
Fighting Swans

The 1994 live action adaptation of Street Fighter brought the characters of the long-running video game franchise to life through the on-screen talents of Jean-Claude Van Damme as Colonel Guile and Raul Julia in his final role as M. Bison. While reception to the film was middling — it’s almost a perfect time capsule of mid-'90s action films — the game franchise is still going strong.

Thirty-five years into its run of digital violence, Street Fighter has swept generations of kids and adults into all night gaming sessions, trading sleep for one more fight. In that regard, gamers have something in common with animals, who also trade periods of rest in order to wage war with their competitors.

Scientists from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Gloucestershire and the Centre for Research in Animal Behavior at the University of Exeter studied swans using remote live-streaming web cams in the hope of better understanding how conflict impacts the way they spend the rest of their time. Their findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

There’s only so much time in the day and animals, including the two species of swans in the study, have to break up their critical activities in what researchers call the time-activity budget. The team used web cams, primarily for their convenience and the ability to observe swan populations remotely at all times of the day without disturbing them or potentially modifying their behaviors.

They focused their efforts on two species who share the same environment, mute and whooper swans, and looked for four mutually exclusive behaviors including aggression, foraging, preening or cleaning, and resting. They focused on these specific behaviors because time spent doing any one of them was necessarily time taken away from the others, resulting in a negative impact on the overall time-activity budget.

The researcher’s initial hypothesis was that time spent in acts of aggression, either defending territory or fighting for access to new territory would result in a negative association with any or all of the other crucial behaviors. However, that isn’t what they observed.

When scouring the footage, researchers found that incidences of aggression increased when there was competition over foraging areas. Aggression was identified by the appearance of threat displays as well as active violence either through pecking or striking other swans with their wings.

Moreover, as time spent in conflict rose, time spent resting fell. That, in and of itself, wasn’t wholly surprising. What was surprising is that time spent foraging or cleaning and preening themselves, otherwise known as maintenance, did not decrease. The swans appear to be borrowing almost exclusively from rest periods in order to tussle with their competitors.

Researchers noted that while swans in this particular area would rest for upwards of 20% of their day, waterbirds in other regions rest as little as 0.5% of the time. Therefore, most of the resting time could be thought of as a pool of time which can be borrowed against for the completion of other tasks. It’s unclear, however, how much of that time can be redistributed before individual birds suffer adverse effects to their health.

Notably, researchers also found some differences in the behavioral trade-offs between mute swans who stay in the area year-round and whooper swans which are migratory. They believe the difference might be due to varying needs between the two species, with mute swans having more flexibility in their behaviors as a consequence of not needing to store a lot of calories in a short period of time in preparation for migration.

Of course, reducing aggression events is better for the overall wellbeing of the animals even if they have a store of resting time to borrow against. Researchers hope conservationists can use the findings when designing refuge areas for swans. By providing enough foraging area, they can decrease the need for aggression between individuals thereby reducing conflict and increasing resting periods.

Unlike Street Fighter, in the game of life the best way to win is not to fight at all.

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