Social network analysis of social interactions in pigs

Social network analysis of social interactions in pigs

Topic: The application of social network analysis to the non-agonistic interactions between growing pigs – implications on positive animal welfare
Awardee: Dr Sarah Jowett (Institute of Genetics and Animal Biotechnology, Polish Academy of Science, Poland)
Host: Dr Jen-Yun Chou (Teagasc, Ireland)

When: 09/10/2023 to 18/09/2023
Where: Teagasc Moorepark, Fermoy (Cork), Ireland

The aim of the STSM was to apply Social Network Analysis (SNA) on domestic pigs’ non-agonistic interactions to understand the development and stability of social affiliations / preferences established in pairs of pigs. SNA is a mathematical method that uses animals’ dyadic interactions to calculate different network metrics to understand the dynamics of social interactions. We tested the possibility of using SNA to assess positive farm animal welfare which can support the aims of WG2.

Three main research questions of the STSM:

  1. How can pigs’ social affiliations or preferences be described in a group using SNA?
  2. How can subgroupings be determined using SNA?
  3. Which SNA metrics are stable over time when pigs are exposed to an unstable social environment?

The STSM followed a structured approach to obtain the aims, with a detailed itinerary, discussed on the first day. The first day also included a tour of the facilities and introduction to the pig unit staff. Four days were allocated to the social network analysis of Dr. Chou’s nosing and non-agonistic behaviour data. During analysis, novel measures of clustering analysis were applied to determine affiliations by similarities in individual social contact behaviour, described as the structural equivalence. The analysis was applied to ascertain if the pigs were able to form continued affiliations following the subgrouping and reunion periods. At the group level, specific social network descriptive measures were applied to assess group-level changes in behavioural contacts.

One day was allocated to visiting an outdoor farm. The small-holder farm was involved in a Teagasc study of ‘OneWelPig’, in which health assessments of the pigs, soil samples, and farmer questionnaires were undertaken. During the visit, hair and soil samples were taken, providing the opportunity to learn new skills. One day was allocated to a tour of the Teagasc pig unit, providing insights into the operations of a large unit (200 sows) and further insight into the housing and welfare procedures undertaken at different production stages. Also included was a tour of the experimental ‘low emission’ system, in which growing pigs are housed within a larger pen, with access to straw, daylight, flooring consisting of slatted and solid flooring, and a separate indoor sleeping area. The pigs in this unit had visual and physical access to pigs in adjacent pens, allowing for social interaction.

Sarah presented a talk to the pig unit team entitled ‘The application of social network analysis to investigate the social structure of a dynamic sow herd’. This allowed sharing of experience and knowledge of social network analysis, and an introduction of the technique and potential applications to the study of welfare. Future collaborative networks were established through this exchange on possible network analysis and computer vision to assist behavioural data collection. The final day of the STSM allowed for the attendance at the Teagasc Pig Farmers’ Conference, which provided opportunities for networking with international speakers, technicians, and industry.

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