Computational Insights Into the Social Life of Zebras and Other Animals


April 7, 2008


Computation has fundamentally changed the way we study nature. Recent breakthroughs in data collection technology, such as GPS and other mobile sensors, are giving biologists access to data about wild populations that are orders of magnitude richer than any previously collected. Such data offer the promise of answering some of the big ecological questions about animal populations.

Unfortunately, in this domain, our ability to analyze data lags substantially behind our ability to collect it. In particular, interactions among individuals are often modeled as social networks where nodes represent individuals and an edge exists if the corresponding individuals have interacted during the observation period.

The model is essentially static in that the interactions are aggregated over time and all information about the time and ordering of social interactions is discarded. We show that such traditional social network analysis methods may result in incorrect conclusions on dynamic data about the structure of interactions and the processes that spread over those interactions.

We have extended computational methods for social network analysis to explicitly address the dynamic nature of interactions among individuals and developed techniques for identifying persistent communities, influential individuals, and extracting patterns of interactions in dynamic social networks. We will present our approach and demonstrate its applicability by analyzing interactions among zebra populations.


Tanya Berger-Wolf

Dr. Tanya Berger-Wolf is an assistant professor at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests are in applications of combinatorial optimization analysis and algorithm design techniques to problems in population biology of plants, animals, and humans, from genetics to social interactions.Dr. Berger-Wolf received her B.Sc. in Computer Science and Mathematics from Hebrew University (Jerusalem, Israel) in 1995 and her Ph.D. in Computer Science from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2002. She has spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico working in computational phylogenetics and a year at the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science (DIMACS) doing research in computational epidemiology.