The Achilles' heel hypothesis: misinformed keystone individuals impair collective learning and reduce group success Academic Article uri icon

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  • Many animal societies rely on highly influential keystone individuals for proper functioning. When information quality is important for group success, such keystone individuals have the potential to diminish group performance if they possess inaccurate information. Here, we test whether information quality (accurate or inaccurate) influences collective outcomes when keystone individuals are the first to acquire it. We trained keystone or generic individuals to attack or avoid novel stimuli and implanted these trained individuals within groups of naive colony-mates. We subsequently tracked how quickly groups learned about their environment in situations that matched (accurate information) or mismatched (inaccurate information) the training of the trained individual. We found that colonies with just one accurately informed individual were quicker to learn to attack a novel prey stimulus than colonies with no informed individuals. However, this effect was no more pronounced when the informed individual was a keystone individual. In contrast, keystones with inaccurate information had larger effects than generic individuals with identical information: groups containing keystones with inaccurate information took longer to learn to attack/avoid prey/predator stimuli and gained less weight than groups harbouring generic individuals with identical information. Our results convey that misinformed keystone individuals can become points of vulnerability for their societies.


  • Pruitt, Jonathan
  • Wright, Colin M
  • Keiser, Carl N
  • DeMarco, Alex E
  • Grobis, Matthew M
  • Pinter-Wollman, Noa

publication date

  • January 27, 2016