One of the main challenges in the study of social networks in vertebrates is to close the gap between group patterns and dynamics. Usually scan samples or transect data are recorded to provide information about social patterns of animals, but these techniques themselves do not shed much light on the underlying dynamics of such groups. Here we show an approach which captures the fission-fusion dynamics of a fish population in the wild and demonstrates how the gap between pattern and dynamics may be closed. Our analysis revealed that guppies have complex association patterns that are characterised by close strong connections between individuals of similar behavioural type. Intriguingly, the preference for particular social partners is not expressed in the length of associations but in their frequency. Finally, we show that the observed association preferences could have important consequences for transmission processes in animal social networks, thus moving the emphasis of network research from descriptive mechanistic studies to functional and predictive ones.