Ward and Zahavi suggested in 1973 that colonies could serve as information centres, through a transfer of information on the location of food resources between unrelated individuals (Information Centre Hypothesis). Using GPS tracking and observations on group movements, we studied the search strategy and information transfer in two of the most colonial seabirds, Guanay cormorants (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii) and Peruvian boobies (Sula variegata). Both species breed together and feed on the same prey. They do return to the same feeding zone from one trip to the next indicating high unpredictability in the location of food resources. We found that the Guanay cormorants use social information to select their bearing when departing the colony. They form a raft at the sea surface whose position is continuously adjusted to the bearing of the largest returning columns of cormorants. As such, the raft serves as a compass signal that gives an indication on the location of the food patches. Conversely, Peruvian boobies rely mainly on personal information based on memory to take heading at departure. They search for food patches solitarily or in small groups through network foraging by detecting the white plumage of congeners visible at long distance. Our results show that information transfer does occur and we propose a new mechanism of information transfer based on the use of rafts off colonies. The use of rafts for information transfer may be common in central place foraging colonial seabirds that exploit short lasting and/or unpredictably distributed food patches. Over the past decades Guanay cormorants have declined ten times whereas Peruvian boobies have remained relatively stable. We suggest that the decline of the cormorants could be related to reduced social information opportunities and that social behaviour and search strategies have the potential to play an important role in the population dynamics of colonial animals.
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