Model-free information-theoretic approach to infer leadership in pairs of zebrafish

Sachit Butail, Violet Mwaffo, Maurizio Porfiri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Collective behavior affords several advantages to fish in avoiding predators, foraging, mating, and swimming. Although fish schools have been traditionally considered egalitarian superorganisms, a number of empirical observations suggest the emergence of leadership in gregarious groups. Detecting and classifying leader-follower relationships is central to elucidate the behavioral and physiological causes of leadership and understand its consequences. Here, we demonstrate an information-theoretic approach to infer leadership from positional data of fish swimming. In this framework, we measure social interactions between fish pairs through the mathematical construct of transfer entropy, which quantifies the predictive power of a time series to anticipate another, possibly coupled, time series. We focus on the zebrafish model organism, which is rapidly emerging as a species of choice in preclinical research for its genetic similarity to humans and reduced neurobiological complexity with respect to mammals. To overcome experimental confounds and generate test data sets on which we can thoroughly assess our approach, we adapt and calibrate a data-driven stochastic model of zebrafish motion for the simulation of a coupled dynamical system of zebrafish pairs. In this synthetic data set, the extent and direction of the coupling between the fish are systematically varied across a wide parameter range to demonstrate the accuracy and reliability of transfer entropy in inferring leadership. Our approach is expected to aid in the analysis of collective behavior, providing a data-driven perspective to understand social interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number042411
JournalPhysical Review E
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 18 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Statistics and Probability
  • Condensed Matter Physics


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