Analysing animal social network dynamics: the potential of stochastic actor-oriented models

David N. Fisher, Amiyaal Ilany, Matthew J. Silk, Tom Tregenza

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Animals are embedded in dynamically changing networks of relationships with conspecifics. These dynamic networks are fundamental aspects of their environment, creating selection on behaviours and other traits. However, most social network-based approaches in ecology are constrained to considering networks as static, despite several calls for such analyses to become more dynamic. There are a number of statistical analyses developed in the social sciences that are increasingly being applied to animal networks, of which stochastic actor-oriented models (SAOMs) are a principal example. SAOMs are a class of individual-based models designed to model transitions in networks between discrete time points, as influenced by network structure and covariates. It is not clear, however, how useful such techniques are to ecologists, and whether they are suited to animal social networks. We review the recent applications of SAOMs to animal networks, outlining findings and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of SAOMs when applied to animal rather than human networks. We go on to highlight the types of ecological and evolutionary processes that SAOMs can be used to study. SAOMs can include effects and covariates for individuals, dyads and populations, which can be constant or variable. This allows for the examination of a wide range of questions of interest to ecologists. However, high-resolution data are required, meaning SAOMs will not be useable in all study systems. It remains unclear how robust SAOMs are to missing data and uncertainty around social relationships. Ultimately, we encourage the careful application of SAOMs in appropriate systems, with dynamic network analyses likely to prove highly informative. Researchers can then extend the basic method to tackle a range of existing questions in ecology and explore novel lines of questioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-212
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society.


  • animal communities
  • dynamics
  • individual-based models
  • network-based diffusion analysis
  • social networks
  • transmission


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