Abstract: Living systems such as neuronal networks and animal groups process information about their environment via the dynamics of interacting units. These can transition between distinct macroscopic behaviors. Near such a transition (or critical point) collective computation is generally thought to be optimized, due to the associated maximal sensitivity to perturbations and fast dissemination of information. For biological systems, however, optimality depends on environmental context, making the flexible, context-dependent adoption of different distances to a critical point potentially more beneficial than its unique properties. Here, studying escape waves in schooling fish at two levels of perceived environmental risk, we investigate a) if and how distance to criticality is regulated in response to environmental changes and b) how the individual level benefits derived from special properties of the critical point compare to those achieved via regulation of the group's distance to it. We find that the observed fish schools are subcritical (not maximally responsive and sensitive to environmental cues), but decrease their distance to criticality with increased perceived risk. Considering an individual's hypothetical costs of two detection error types, we find that optimal distance to criticality depends on the riskiness and noisiness of the environment, which may explain the observed behavior. Our results highlight the benefit of evaluating biological consequences of different distances to criticality for individuals within animal collectives. This provides insights into the adaptive function of a collective system and motivates future questions about the evolutionary forces that brought the system to make this particular trade-off.
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