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Love or kill thy neighbor? New study into animal social behavior

A theoretical study led by the University of Exeter has shed new light on the conditions that lead to the evolution of spite or altruism in structured populations.

Understanding the way in which social behaviours such as altruism when animals benefit others at their own expense develop is a long-standing problem that has generated thousands of articles and heated debates.

Dr Florence Dbarre of Biosciences at the University of Exeter led a study, published today in Nature Communications, which presents a comprehensive framework that applies to a large class of population structures and identifies the crucial elements which support the evolution of social behaviour.

Structured populations are those exhibiting either spatial or social structure. This can range from animals living in social groups - like meerkats - to bacteria in biofilms.

In these populations altruism evolves if, for individuals, the social benefit of living next to others outweighs the costs of competing against them.

Traditionally, population modellers have assumed that the direct benefits and costs of social interactions affect the ability to produce offspring (the fecundity). In natural populations, however, social interactions may also affect survival.

Dr Dbarre and her collaborators combined these two features in their model, which revealed new insights. It turns out that helping your neighbours reproduce more or helping them live for longer does not have the same indirect consequences on your own fitness. These indirect consequences are crucial, and determine which type of social behaviour (helping, harming or doing nothing) can evolve.

When competition is fierce because space is so limited that an individual can only reproduce after some space has been freed up by the death of a neighbour, the researcher's results show that the social behaviours that are most advantageous are the ones in which individuals make thei

Contact: Eleanor Gaskarth
University of Exeter

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