Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Before animals drop their gloves and square off, they assess the situation. Previous research suggests individuals conduct a kind of crude cost-benefit analysis, taking account of an opponent's size and strength, recent fight results and the prize's importance.
In a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, scientists argue research into animal combat has mostly ignored the complexities of group conflict, assuming that larger groups will always prevail.
In reality, rival groups perform complex pre-fight assessments, just as individuals do, researchers argue. This includes taking into account the fitness of an opposing group's members, as well as factors such as group cohesion and teamwork.
"Any potential fight -- whether between humans or animals -- gets more complex if there are multiple individuals on each side," lead study author Patrick Green said in a news release.
"Groups may assess both the importance of whatever they're fighting about, and a range of factors about their own group and the opponent," said Green, a researcher with the Center for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter.
Scientists have developed sophisticated analytical frameworks to understand how individual animals assess potential fights.
"However, studies on group contests among social-living animals haven't generally focused on assessment," Green said. "Understanding more about this can teach us not only about evolution, but also about conflict in humans."
The new study -- a call for researchers to investigate assessment in group conflict -- highlights a variety of phenomena that undermine the assumption that bigger groups of animals necessarily prevail.
For example, smaller but stronger groups of grey wolves with more males, which are bigger than females, often emerge victorious in conflicts with larger groups.
Smaller groups of meerkats with more pups often win fights with larger groups with fewer young, suggesting motivation -- and a responsibility to offspring -- can alter the results of conflict.
According to the new paper, studies have shown turtle ants prioritize the defense of nests with smaller entrances over those with wider, harder-to-defend entrances, suggesting animals consider the odds of victory when faced with group conflict.
Studies of chimpanzee social groups have also shown males are less aggressive within the group when fights with rivals are more likely, suggesting the strength of social bonds plays a role in determining the outcome of fights between rival groups.
"Researchers have spent years wondering about the extent to which individual fighting animals use 'assessment' -- effectively, sizing their opponent up," said study co-author Mark Briffa, professor of animal behavior at the University of Plymouth. "In this paper, we explore the scope for groups of rivals to do a similar thing."
"This could be a possibility in many examples across the animal kingdom where individuals work collectively, such as battles between rival groups of ants or even warfare between rival groups in humans."