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Behavioral ecology

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Title: Behavioral ecology  
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Subject: Tim Clutton-Brock, Foraging, Landscape ecology, Glossary of ecology, Adaptive behavior (ecology)
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Behavioral ecology

Some examples of Behavioural Ecology
Penguins huddling in the Antarctic
Geese flying in aerodynamic V-formation
The bee waggle dance communicating information
A frog with inflated vocal sac
A stotting gazelle

Behavioral ecology is the study of the evolutionary basis for animal behavior due to ecological pressures. Behavioral ecology emerged from ethology after Niko Tinbergen outlined four questions to address when studying animal behavior which are the proximate causes, ontogeny, survival value, and phylogeny of behavior.

If an organism has a trait which provides them with a selective advantage (i.e. has an adaptive significance) in a new environment natural selection will likely favor it. This was originally proposed as the theory of natural selection by Charles Darwin. Adaptive significance therefore refers to the beneficial qualities, in terms of increased survival and reproduction, a trait conveys. Genetic differences in individuals lead to behavioral differences that in turn drive differences in adaptation, reproductive success, and ultimately evolution.

Individuals are always in competition with others for limited resources, including food, territories, and mates. Conflict will occur between predators and prey, between rivals for mates, between siblings, mates, and even between parents and their offspring.

Competing for resources

The value of a social behavior depends in part on the social behavior of an animal's neighbors. For example, the more likely a rival male is to back down from a threat, the more value a male gets out of making the threat. The more likely, however, that a rival will attack if threatened, the less useful it is to threaten other males. When a population exhibits a number of interacting social behaviors such as this, it can evolve a stable pattern of behaviors known as an evolutionarily stable strategy (or ESS). This term, derived from economic game theory, became prominent after John Maynard Smith(1982)[1] recognized the possible application of the concept of a Nash equilibrium to model the evolution of behavioral strategies.

Evolutionarily stable strategy

In short, evolutionary game theory asserts that only strategies that, when common in the population, cannot be "invaded" by any alternative (mutant) strategy will be an ESS, and thus maintained in the population. In other words, at equilibrium every player should play the best strategic response to each other. When the game is two player and symmetric each player should play the strategy which is the best response to itself.

Therefore, the ESS is considered to be the evolutionary end point subsequent to the interactions. As the fitness conveyed by a strategy is influenced by what other individuals are doing (the relative frequency of each strategy in the population), behavior can be governed not only by optimality but the frequencies of strategies adopted by others and are therefore frequency dependent (frequency dependence).

Behavioral evolution is therefore influenced by both the physical environment and interactions between other individuals.

An example of how changes in geography can make a strategy susceptible to alternative strategies is the parasitization of the African honey bee, A. m. scutellata.

Resource defense

The term economic defendability was first introduced by Jerram Brown in 1964. Economic defendability states that defense of a resource have costs, such as energy expenditure or risk of injury, as well as benefits of priority access to the resource. Territorial behavior arises when benefits are greater than the costs.[2]

Studies of the Golden-winged Sunbird have validated the concept of economic defendability. Comparing the energetic costs a sunbird expends in a day to the extra nectar gained by defending a territory, researchers showed that birds only became territorial when they were making a net energetic profit.[3] When resources are at low density, the gains from excluding others may not be sufficient to pay for the cost of territorial defense. In contrast, when resource availability is high, there may be so many intruders that the defender would have no time to make use of the resources made available by defense.

Sometimes the economics of resource competition favors shared defense. An example is the feeding territories of the white wagtail. The white wagtails feed on insects washed up by the river onto the bank, which acts as a renewing food supply. If any intruders harvested their territory then the prey would quickly become depleted, but sometimes territory owners tolerate a second bird, known as a satellite. The two sharers would then move out of phase with one another, resulting in decreased feeding rate but also increased defense, illustrating advantages of group living.[4]

Ideal free distribution

One of the major models used to predict the distribution of competing individuals amongst resource patches is the ideal free distribution model. Within this model, resource patches can be of variable quality, and there is no limit to the number of individuals that can occupy and extract resources from a particular patch. Competition within a particular patch means that the benefit each individual receives from exploiting a patch decreases logarithmically with increasing number of competitors sharing that resource patch. The model predicts that individuals will initially flock to higher-quality patches until the costs of crowding bring the benefits of exploiting them in line with the benefits of being the only individual on the lesser-quality resource patch. After this point has been reached, individuals will alternate between exploiting the higher-quality patches and the lower-quality patches in such a way that the average benefit for all individuals in both patches is the same. This model is ideal in that individuals have complete information about the quality of a resource patch and the number of individuals currently exploiting it, and free in that individuals are freely able to choose which resource patch to exploit.[5]

An experiment by Manfred Malinski in 1979 demonstrated that feeding behavior in three-spined sticklebacks follows an ideal free distribution. Six fish were placed in a tank, and food items were dropped into opposite ends of the tank at different rates. The rate of food deposition at one end was set at twice that of the other end, and the fish distributed themselves with four individuals at the faster-depositing end and two individuals at the slower-depositing end. In this way, the average feeding rate was the same for all of the fish in the tank.[6]

Mating strategies and tactics

As with any competition of resources, species across the animal kingdom may also engage in competitions for mating. If one considers mates or potentials mates as a resource, these sexual partners can be randomly distributed amongst resource pools within a given environment. Following the ideal free distribution model, suitors will distribute themselves amongst the potential mates in an effort to maximize their chances or the number of potential mates that they can consummate. For all competitors, males of a species in most cases, there will be variations in both the strategies and tactics used to obtain matings. Strategies generally refer to the genetically determined behaviors which can be described as conditional. Tactics refer to the subset of behaviors within a given genetic strategy. Thus it is not difficult for a great many variations in mating strategies to exist in a given environment or species.[7]

An experiment conducted by Anthony Arak, where playback of synthetic calls from male natterjack toads was used to manipulate behavior of the males in a chorus, the difference between strategies and tactics is clear. While small and immature, male natterjack toads adopted a satellite tactic to parasitize larger males. Though large males on average still retained greater reproductive success, smaller males were able to intercept matings. When the large males of the chorus were removed, smaller males adopted a calling behavior, no longer competing against the loud calls of larger males. When smaller males got larger and their calls more competitive, then they started calling and competing directly for mates.[8]

Sexual selection

Mate choice by resources

In many sexually reproducing species, such as mammals, birds and amphibians, the females are responsible for bearing the offspring for a certain period of time, during which the males are free to mate with other available females and therefore can father many more offspring, thus continue to pass on their genes. The fundamental difference between male and female reproduction mechanisms determines the different strategies each sex employs to maximize their reproductive success. For males, their reproductive success is limited by access to females, while females are limited by their access to resources. In this sense, females can be way choosier than males because they have to bet on the resources provided by the males to ensure reproductive success.[9]

Resources usually include nest sites, food and protection. In some cases, the males provide all of them (e.g. sedge warblers).[10] The females dwell in their chosen males’ territories for access to these resources. The males gain ownership to the territories through male-male competition that often involves physical aggression. Only the largest and strongest males manage to defend the best quality nest sites. Females choose males by inspecting the quality of different territories or by looking at some male traits that can indicate the quality of resources.[9] Sometimes, males leave after mating. The only resource that a male provides is a nuptial gift, such as protection or food.[11] The female can evaluate the quality of the protection or food provided by the male so as to decide whether to mate or not or how long she is willing to copulate.

Mate choice by genes

When males' only contribution to offspring is their sperm, females are particularly choosy. With this high level of female choice, sexual ornaments are seen in males, where the ornaments reflect the male's social status. Two hypotheses have been proposed to conceptualize the genetic benefits from female mate choice.[9]

First, the good genes hypothesis suggests that female choice is for higher genetic quality and that this preference is favored because it increases fitness of the offspring.[12] This includes Zahavi's handicap hypothesis and Hamilton and Zuk's host and parasite arms race. Zahavi's handicap hypothesis was proposed within the context of looking at elaborate male sexual displays. He suggested that females favor ornamented traits because they are handicaps and are indicators of the male's genetic quality. Since these ornamented traits are hazards, the male's survival must be indicative of his high genetic quality in other areas. In this way, the degree that a male expresses his sexual display indicates to the female his genetic quality.[9] Zuk and Hamilton proposed a hypothesis after observing disease as a powerful selective pressure on a rabbit population. They suggested that sexual displays were indicators of resistance of disease on a genetic level.[9]

Such 'choosiness' from the female individuals can be seen from wasp species too, especially among the Polistes dominula species. The females tend to prefer males with smaller, more elliptically shaped spots than those with larger and more irregularly shaped spots. Those males would have reproductive superiority over males with irregular spots.

Fisher's hypothesis of runaway sexual selection suggests that female preference is genetically correlated with male traits and that the preference co-evolves with the evolution of that trait, thus the preference is under indirect selection.[12] Fisher suggests that female preference began because the trait indicated the male’s quality. The female preference spread, so that the females’ offspring now benefitted from the higher quality from specific trait but also greater attractiveness to mates. Eventually, the trait will only represent attractiveness to mates and no longer represent increased survival.[9]

An example of mate choice by genes is seen in the cichlid fish Tropheus moorii where males provide no parental care. An experiment found that a female T. moorii is more likely to choose a mate with the same color morph as her own.[13] In another experiment, females have been shown to share preferences for the same males when given two to choose from, meaning some males get to reproduce more often than others.[14]

Sexual conflict

Sexual conflict, in some form or another, may very well be inherent in the ways most animals reproduce.[15] Females invest more in offspring prior to mating, due to the differences in gametes in species that exhibit anisogamy, and often invest more in offspring after mating.[9] This unequal investment leads, on one hand, to intense competition between males for mates and, on the other hand, to females choosing among males for better access to resources and good genes. Because of differences in mating goals, males and females may have very different preferred outcomes to mating.

Sexual conflict occurs whenever the preferred outcome of mating is different for the male and female. This difference, in theory, should lead to each sex evolving adaptations that bias the outcome of reproduction towards its own interests. This sexual competition leads to sexually antagonistic coevolution between males and females, resulting in what has been described as an evolutionary arms race between males and females.[16][17]

Conflict over mating

Males’ reproductive successes are often limited by access to mates, whereas females’ reproductive successes are more often limited by access to resources. Thus, for a given sexual encounter, it will benefit the male to mate but the female to be choosy and resist.[9] For example, male small tortoiseshell butterfly will compete in order to gain the best territory to mate.[18]

Extreme manifestations of this conflict are seen throughout nature. For example, the male [19] Forced copulation is costly to the female as she does not receive the food from the male and has to search for food herself (costing time and energy), while it is beneficial for the male as he does not need to find a nuptial gift.

In other cases, however, it pays for the female to gain more matings and her social mate to prevent these so as to guard paternity. For example, in many socially monogamous birds, males will follow females closely during her fertile period and attempt to chase away any other males so as to prevent extra-pair matings. The female may attempt to sneak off to achieve these extra matings. In species where males are incapable of constant guarding, the social male will often frequently copulate with the female so as to swamp rival males’ sperm.[20]

Female Red Junglefowl in Thailand

Sexual conflict after mating has also been shown to occur in both males and females. Males employ a diverse array of tactics to increase their success in sperm competition. These can include removing other male’s sperm from females, displacing other male’s sperm by flushing out prior inseminations with large amounts of their own sperm, creating copulatory plugs in females’ reproductive tracts to prevent future matings with other males, spraying females with anti-aphrodisiacs to discourage other males from mating with the female, and producing sterile parasperm to protect fertile eusperm in the female’s reproductive tract.[9] Furthermore, males may control the strategic allocation of sperm, producing more sperm when females are more promiscuous. All these methods are meant to ensure that females will be more likely to produce offspring belonging to the males who uses the method.[9]

Females also control the outcomes of matings, and there exists the possibility that females choose sperm (cryptic female choice).[9] A dramatic example of this is the feral fowl Gallus gallus. In this species, females prefer to copulate with dominant males, but subordinate males can force matings. In these cases, the female is able to eject the subordinate male’s sperm using cloacal contractions.[21]

Parental care and family conflicts

Parental care is the investment a parent will put into their offspring, which includes protecting and feeding the young, preparing burrows or nests, and providing eggs with yolk.[22] There is great variation in parental care in the animal kingdom. In some species, the parents may not care for their offspring at all, while in others the parents exhibit single-parental or even bi-parental care. As with other topics in behavioral ecology, interactions within a family will involve conflicts. These conflicts can be broken down into three general types: sexual (male-female) conflict, parent-offspring conflict, and sibling conflict.

Types of parental care

There are many different patterns of parental care in the animal kingdom. The patterns can be explained by physiological constraints or ecological conditions, such as mating opportunities. In invertebrates, there is no parental care in most species because it is more favorable for parents to produce a large number of eggs whose fate is left to chance than to protect a few individual young. In birds, biparental care is the most common, because reproductive success directly depends on the parents' ability to feed their chicks. Two parents can feed twice as many young, so it is more favorable for birds to have both parents delivering food. In mammals, female-only care is the most common. This is most likely because females are internally fertilized and so are holding the young inside for a prolonged period of gestation, which provides males with the opportunity to desert. Females also feed the young through lactation after birth, so males are not required for feeding. Male parental care is only observed in species where they contribute to feeding or carrying of the young, such as in marmosets.[23] In fish there is no parental care in 79% of bony fish.[24] In fish with parental care, it usually limited to selecting, preparing, and defending a nest, as seen in sockeye salmon, for example.[25] Also, parental care in fish, if any, is primarily done by males, as seen in gobies and redlip blennies.[26][27] The cichlid fish V. moorii exhibits biparental care.[28] In species with internal fertilization, the female is usually the one to take care of the young. In cases where fertilization is external the male becomes the main caretaker.

Familial conflict

Familial conflict is a result of tradeoffs as a function of lifetime parental investment. Parental investment was defined by Robert Trivers in 1972 as “any investment by the parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring's chance of surviving at the cost of the parent’s ability to invest in other offspring”. Parental investment includes behaviors like guarding and feeding. Each parent has a limited amount of parental investment over the course of their lifetime. Investment tradeoffs in offspring quality and quantity within a brood and trade offs between current and future broods leads to conflict over how much parental investment to provide and to whom parents should invest in. There are three major types of familial conflict: sexual, parent-offspring, and sibling-sibling conflict.[9]

Sexual conflict

Great Tit

There is conflict among parents as to who should provide the care as well as how much care to provide. Each parent must decide whether or not to stay and care for their offspring, or to desert their offspring. This decision is best modeled by game theoretic approaches to evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS) where the best strategy for one parent depends on the strategy adopted by the other parent. Recent research has found response matching in parents who determine how much care to invest in their offspring. Studies found that parent Great Tits will match their partner’s increased care-giving efforts with increased provisioning rates of their own.[29] This cued parental response is a type of behavioral negotiation between parents that leads to stabilized compensation.

Parent-offspring conflict

Blackbird chicks in a nest

According to Robert Trivers’s theory on relatedness, each offspring is related to itself by 1, but is only 0.5 related to their parents and siblings. Genetically, offspring are predisposed to behave in their own self-interest while parents are predisposed to behave equally to all their offspring, including both current and future ones. Offspring will selfishly attempt to take more than their fair shares of parental investment while parents will attempt to spread out their parental investment equally amongst their present young and future young. There are many examples of parent-offspring conflict in nature. One manifestation of this is asynchronous hatching in birds. A behavioral ecology hypothesis is known as Lack's brood reduction hypothesis (named after David Lack). Lack's hypothesis posits an evolutionary and ecological explanation as to why birds lay a series of eggs with an asynchronous delay leading to nestlings of mixed age and weights. According to Lack, this brood behavior is an ecological insurance that allows the larger birds to survive in poor years and all birds to survive when food is plentiful.[30][31] We also see sex-ratio conflict between the queen and her workers in social hymenoptera. Because of haplodiploidy, the workers (offspring) prefer a 3:1 female to male sex allocation while the queen prefers a 1:1 sex ratio. Both the queen and the workers will attempt to bias the sex ratio in their favor.[32] Lastly, there has been recent evidence regarding genomic imprinting that is a result of parent-offspring conflict. Paternal genes in offspring will demand more maternal resources than maternal genes in the same offspring and vice versa. This has been show in imprinted genes like insulin-like growth factor-II.[33]

Parent-offspring conflict resolution

Parents need an honest signal from their offspring indicating their level of hunger or need, so that the parents can distribute resources accordingly. Offspring want to get more than their fair share of resources, so they will want to exaggerate their signals to wheedle more investment from their parents. However, this conflict is resolved by the cost of excessive begging. Not only does excessive begging attract predators, but it also retards chick growth if begging goes unrewarded.[34] Thus, the cost of increased begging will enforce offspring honesty.

Another resolution for parent-offspring conflict is that parental provisioning and offspring demand have actually coevolved together, so that there is no obvious underlying conflict. Cross-fostering experiments in Great Tits (Parus major) have shown that offspring beg more when their biological mothers are more generous.[35] Therefore, it seems that the willingness to invest in offspring is co-adapted to offspring demand.

Sibling-sibling conflict

Galápagos fur seals

The lifetime parental investment is the fixed amount of parental resources available for all of a parent's young, and an offspring will want as much of it as possible. Siblings in a brood will often compete for parental resources by trying to gain more than their fair share of what their parents have to offer. There are numerous examples in nature where sibling rivalry is escalated to such an extreme that one sibling will try to kill off his other broodmates in order to maximize his own parental investment (See Siblicide). In the Galapagos fur seal, the second pup of a female is usually born when the first pup is still suckling. This competition for the mother’s milk is especially fierce during periods of food shortage such as an El Niño year, and this usually results in the older pup directly attacking and killing the younger one.[36]

In some bird species, sibling rivalry is also abetted by the asynchronous hatching of eggs. In the Blue-footed Booby, for example, the first egg in a nest is hatched four days before the second one, resulting in the elder chick having a four-day head start in growth. When the elder chick falls 20-25% below its expected weight threshold, it will attack its younger sibling and drive it from the nest.[37]

Sibling relatedness in a brood also influences the level of sibling-sibling conflict. In a study on passerine birds, it was found that chicks begged more loudly in species with higher levels of extra-pair paternity.[38]

Brood parasitism

Adult Reed Warbler feeding a Common Cuckoo chick

Some animals deceive other species into providing all parental care. These brood parasites selfishly exploit their hosts' parents and host offspring. The Common Cuckoo is a well known example of a brood parasite. Female cuckoos lay a single egg in the nest of the host species and when the cuckoo chick hatches, it ejects all the host eggs and young. Other examples of brood parasites include honeyguides, cowbirds and the large blue butterfly.[39][40][41] Brood parasite offspring have many strategies to induce their host parents to invest parental care. Studies show that the Common Cuckoo uses vocal mimicry to reproduce the sound of multiple hungry host young to solicit more food.[42] Other cuckoos will use visual deception with their wings to exaggerate the begging display. False gapes from brood parasite offspring cause host parents to collect more food.[43] Another example of a brood parasite is Phengaris butterflies such as Phengaris rebeli and Phengaris arion, which differ from the Cuckoo in that the butterflies do not oviposit directly in the nest of the host, an ant species Myrmica schencki.[44][45] Rather, the butterfly larvae release chemicals that deceive the ants into believing that they are ant larvae, causing the ants to bring the butterfly larvae back to their own nests to feed them.[44][45] Another example of a brood parasite is Polistes sulcifer, a paper wasp that has lost the ability to build its own nests, and so females lay their eggs in the nest of a host species, Polistes dominula, and rely on the host workers to take care of their brood.[46] Vespula austriaca is another wasp in which the females force the host workers to feed and take care of the brood. [47]

Mating systems

Various types of mating systems include monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, promiscuity, and polygamy. Each is differentiated by the sexual behavior between mates, such as which males mate with certain females. An influential paper by Stephen Emlen and Lewis Oring (1977)[48] argued that two main factors of animal behavior influence the diversity of mating systems: the relative accessibility that each sex has to mates, and the parental desertion by either sex.

Mating systems with no male parental care

In a system that does not have male parental care, resource Dispersion, predation, and the effects of social living primarily influence female dispersion, which in turn influences male dispersion. Since males' primary concern is female acquisition, the males will either indirectly or directly compete for the females. In direct competition, the males are directly focused on the females.[49] Blue-headed wrasse demonstrate the behavior in which females follow resources—such as good nest sites—and males follow the females.[49][50] Conversely, species with males that exemplify indirectly competitive behavior tend towards the males’ anticipation of the resources desired by females and their subsequent effort to control or acquire these resources, which helps them to achieve success with females.[49] Grey-sided voles demonstrate indirect male competition for females. The males were experimentally observed to home in on the sites with the best food in anticipation of females settling in these areas.[49][51] Leks and choruses have also been deemed another behavior among the phenomena of male competition for females. Due to the resource-poor nature of the territories that lekking males often defend, it is difficult to categorize them as indirect competitors. Additionally, it is difficult to classify them as direct competitors seeing as they put a great deal of effort into their defense of their territories before females arrive, and upon female arrival they put for the great mating displays to attract the females to their individual sites. These observations make it difficult to determine whether female or resource dispersion primarily influences male aggregation, especially in lieu of the apparent difficulty that males may have defending resources and females in such densely populated areas.[49] Because the reason for male aggregation into leks is unclear, five hypothesis have been proposed. These postulates propose the following as reasons for male lekking: Hotspot, Predation reduction, Increased female attraction, Hotshot males, Facilitation of female choice.[49][52] With all of the mating behaviors discussed, the primary factors influencing differences within and between species are ecology, social conflicts, and life history differences.[49]

In some other instances, neither direct nor indirect competition is seen. Instead, in species like the Edith's Checkerspot butterfly, males' efforts are directed at acquisition of females and they exhibit indiscriminate mate location behavior, where, given the low cost of mistakes, they will blindly attempt to mate both correctly with females and incorrectly with other objects.[53]

Mating systems with male parental care


Monogamy is the mating system in 90% of birds, possibly because each male and female will have a greater number of offspring if they share in raising a brood.[54] In obligate monogamy, males feed females on the nest, or share in incubation and chick-feeding. In some species, males and females form lifelong pair bonds. Monogamy may also arise from limited opportunities for polygamy, due to strong competition among males for mates, females suffering from loss of male help, and female-female aggression.[55]


In birds, polygyny occurs when males indirectly monopolize females by controlling resources. In species where males normally do not contribute much to parental care, females suffer relatively little or not at all.[56] In other species, however, females suffer through the loss of male contribution, and the cost of having to share resources that the male controls, such as nest sites or food. In some cases, a polygynous male may control a high-quality territory so for the female, the benefits of polygyny may outweigh the costs.[57]

Polyandry threshold

There also seems to be a “polyandry threshold” where males may do better by agreeing to share a female instead of attempting to be in a monogamous mating system.[58] Situations that may lead to cooperation among males include when food is scarce, and when there is intense competition for territories or females. For example, male lions sometimes form coalitions to gain control of a pride of females. In some populations of Glapagos hawks, groups of males would cooperate to defend one breeding territory. The males would share matings with the female and share paternity with the offspring.[59]

Female desertion and sex role reversal

In birds, desertion often happens when food is abundant, so the remaining partner is better able to raise the young unaided. Desertion also occurs if there is a great chance of a parent to gain another mate, which depends on environmental and populational factors.[60] Some birds, such as the phalaropes, have reversed sex roles where the female is larger and more brightly colored, and compete for males to incubate their clutches.[61] In jacanas, the female is larger than the male and her territory could overlap the multiple territories of up to four males.[62]

Social behaviors

Animals cooperate with each other in order to increase their own fitness.[63] These altruistic, and sometimes spiteful behaviors can be explained by Hamilton's rule, which states that rB-C > 0 where r= relatedness, B= benefits, and C= costs.[64]

Kin selection

Kin selection refers to evolutionary strategies where an individual acts to favor the [69][70]

Kin selection predicts that individuals will harbor personal costs in favor of one or multiple individuals because this can maximize their genetic contribution to future generations. For example, an organism may be inclined to expend great time and energy in relatedness.[69][70] So, individuals will be inclined to act altruistically for siblings, grandparents, cousins and other relatives, but to differing degrees.[63]

Inclusive fitness

Inclusive fitness describes the component of reproductive success in both a focal individual and their relatives.[63] Importantly, the measure embodies the sum of direct and indirect fitness and the change in their reproductive success based on the actor's behavior.[71] That is, the effect an individual's behaviors have on: being personally better-suited to reproduce offspring, and aiding descendent and non-descendent relatives in their reproductive efforts.[63] Natural selection is predicted to push individuals to behave in ways that maximize their inclusive fitness. Studying inclusive fitness is often done using predictions from Hamilton's rule.

Kin recognition

Genetic cues

One possible method of kin selection is based on genetic cues that can be recognized phenotypically.[9] Genetic recognition has been exemplified in a species that is usually not thought of as a social creature: amoebae. Social amoebae form fruiting bodies when starved for food. These amoebae preferentially formed slugs and fruiting bodies with members of their own lineage, which is clonally related.[72] The genetic cue comes from variable lag genes, which are involved in signaling and adhesion between cells.[73]

Environmental cues

There are two simple rules that animals follow to determine who is kin. These rules can be exploited, but exist because they are generally successful.

The first rule is ‘treat anyone in my home as kin.’ This rule is readily seen in the reed warbler, a bird species that will only focus on chicks in their own nest. Interestingly, if its own kin is placed outside of the nest, a parent bird will ignore that chick. This rule can sometimes lead to odd results, especially if there is a parasitic bird that lays eggs in the reed warbler nest. For example, an adult cuckoo may sneak its egg into the nest. Once the cuckoo hatches, the reed warbler parent will feed the invading bird like its own child. Even with the risk for exploitation, the rule generally proves successful.[9][74]

The second rule, named by Konrad Lorenz as ‘imprinting,’ states that those who you grow up with are kin. Several species exhibit this behavior, including, but not limited to the Belding's ground squirrel.[9] Experimentation with these squirrels showed that regardless of true genetic relatedness, those that were reared together rarely fought. Further research suggests that there is partially some genetic recognition going on as well, as siblings that were raised apart were less aggressive toward one another compared to non-relatives reared apart.[75]


Cooperation is broadly defined as behavior that provides a benefit to another individual that specifically evolved for that benefit. This excludes behavior that has not been expressly selected for to provide a benefit for another individual, because there are many commensal and parasitic relationships where the behavior one individual (which has evolved to benefit that individual and no others) is taken advantage of by other organisms. For cooperative behavior to be stable, it must provide a benefit to both the actor and recipient, although the benefit to the actor can take many different forms.[9]

Within species

Within species cooperation occurs among members of the same species. Examples of intraspecific cooperation include cooperative breeding (such as in weeper capuchins) and cooperative foraging (such as in wolves). Much of this behavior occurs due to kin selection. Kin selection allows cooperative behavior to evolve where the actor receives no direct benefits from the cooperation.[9]

Cooperation (without kin selection) must evolve to provide benefits to both the actor and recipient of the behavior. This includes reciprocity, where the recipient of the cooperative behavior repays the actor at a later time. This may occur in vampire bats but it is uncommon in non-human animals.[76] Cooperation can occur willingly between individuals when both benefit directly as well. Cooperative breeding, where one individual cares for the offspring of another, occurs in several species, including wedge-capped capuchin monkeys.[77]

Cooperative behavior may also be enforced, where there failure to cooperate results in negative consequences. One of the best examples of this is worker policing, which occurs in social insect colonies.[78]

Between species

Cooperation can occur between members of different species. For interspecific cooperation to be evolutionarily stable, it must benefit individuals in both species. Examples include pistol shrimp and goby fish, nitrogen fixing microbes and legumes,[79] ants and aphids.[80] In ants and aphids, aphids secrete a sugary liquid called honeydew, which that ants eat. The ants provide protection to the aphids against predators, and, in some instances, raise the aphid eggs and larvae inside the ant colony. This behavior is analogous to human domestication.[80] The genus of goby fish, Elacatinus also demonstrate cooperation by removing and feeding on ectoparasites of their clients.[81] The species of wasp Polybia rejecta and ants Azteca chartifex show a cooperative behavior protecting one anothers nests from predators.


Hamilton's rule can also predict spiteful behaviors between non-relatives.[9] A spiteful behavior is one that is harmful to both the actor and to the recipient. Spiteful behavior will be favored if the actor is less related to the recipient than to the average member of the population making r negative and if rB-C is still greater than zero. Spite can also be thought of as a type of altruism because harming a non-relative, by taking his resources for example, could also benefit a relative, by allowing him access to those resources. Furthermore certain spiteful behaviors may provide harmful short term consequences to the actor but also give long term reproductive benefits.[82] Many behaviors that are commonly thought of as spiteful are actually better explained as being selfish, that is benefiting the actor and harming the recipient, and true spiteful behaviors are rare in the animal kingdom.

An example of spite is the sterile soldiers of the polyembryonic parasitoid wasp. A female wasp will lay a male and a female egg in a caterpillar. The eggs will divide asexually creating many genetically identical male and female larvae. Sterile soldier wasps will also develop and attack the relatively unrelated brother larvae so that the genetically identical sisters will have more access to food.[9]

Another example is bacteria that release bacteriocins.[9] The bacteria that releases the bacteriocin may have to die in order to do so; however most of the harm will be done to unrelated individuals who will be killed by the bacteriocin. This is because the ability to produce and release the bacteriocin is linked with immunity to it. Therefore, close relatives to the releasing cell will be less likely to die than non-relatives.

Altruism and conflict in social insects

Honeypot ant

Many insect species of the order honeypot ant Myrmecocystus mexicanus or the waggle dance of honey bees and a wasp species, Vespula vulgaris.

In many, but not all social insects, reproduction is monopolized by the queen of the colony. Due to the effects of a haplodiploid mating system, in which unfertilized eggs become male drones and fertilized eggs become worker females, average relatedness values between sister workers can be higher than those seen in humans or other eutherian mammals. This has led to the suggestion that kin selection may be a driving force in the evolution of eusociality, as individuals could provide cooperative care that establishes a favorable benefit to cost ratio(rB-c > 0).[83] However, not all social insects follow this rule. In the social wasp Polistes dominula, 35% of the nest mates are unrelated.[18][37] In many other species, unrelated individuals only help the queen when no other options are present. In this case, subordinates work for unrelated queens even when other options may be present. No other social insect submits to unrelated queens in this way. This seemingly unfavorable behavior parallels some vertebrate systems. It is thought that this unrelated assistance is evidence of altruism in P. dominula.[18]

Naked mole-rats

Cooperation in social organisms has numerous ecological factors that can determine the benefits and costs associated with this form of organization. One suggested benefit is a type of "life insurance" for individuals who participate in the care of the young. In this instance, individuals may have a greater likelihood of transmitting genes to the next generation when helping in a group compared to individual reproduction. Another suggested benefit is the possibility of "fortress defense", where soldier castes will threaten or attack intruders, thus protecting related individuals inside the territory. Such behaviors are seen in the snapping shrimp Synalpheus regalis and gall-forming aphid Pemphigus spyrothecae.[84][85] A third ecological factor that is posited to promote eusociality is the distribution of resources: when food is sparse and concentrated in patches, eusociality is favored. Evidence supporting this third factor comes from studies of naked mole-rats and Damaraland mole-rats, which have communities containing a single pair of reproductive individuals.[86]

Conflicts in social insects

Although eusociality has been shown to offer many benefits to the colony, there is also potential for conflict. Examples include the sex-ratio conflict and worker policing seen in certain species of social Hymenoptera such as Dolichovespula media, Dolichovespula sylvestris, Dolichovespula norwegica [87] and Vespula vulgaris.[88][89] The queen and the worker wasps either indirectly kill the laying-workers' offsprings by neglecting them or directly condemn them by cannibalizing and scavenging.[90]

The sex-ratio conflict arises from a relatedness asymmetry, which is caused by the haplodiploidy nature of Hymenoptera. For instance, workers are most related to each other because they share half of the genes from the queen and inherit all of the father’s genes. Their total relatedness to each other would be 0.5+ (0.5 x 0.5) = 0.75. Thus, sisters are three-fourths related to each other. On the other hand, males arise from unfertilized larva, meaning they only inherit half of the queen’s genes and none from the father. As a result, a female is related to her brother by 0.25, because 50% of her genes that come from her father have no chance of being shared with a brother. Her relatedness to her brother would therefore be 0.5 x 0.5=0.25.[9] :382

According to Trivers and Hare’s population-level sex-investment ratio theory, the ratio of relatedness between sexes determines the sex investment ratios.[91] As a result, it has been observed that there is a tug-of-war between the queen and the workers, where the queen would prefer a 1:1 female to male ratio because she is equally related to her sons and daughters (r=0.5 in each case). However, the workers would prefer a 3:1 female to male ratio because they are 0.75 related to each other and only 0.25 related to their brothers.[9] :382 Allozyme data of a colony may indicate who wins this conflict.[92]

Conflict can also arise between workers in colonies of social insects. In some species, worker females retain their ability to mate and lay eggs. The colony's queen will be related to her sons by half of her genes and a quarter to the sons of her worker daughters. Workers, however, are related to their sons by half of their genes and to their brothers by a quarter. Thus, the queen and her worker daughters would compete for reproduction to maximize their own reproductive fitness. Worker reproduction is limited by other workers who are more related to the queen than their sisters, a situation occurring in many polyandrous hymenopteran species. Workers police the egg-laying females by engaging in oophagy or directed acts of aggression.[93][94]

The monogamy hypothesis

The monogamy hypothesis states that the presence of monogamy in insects is crucial for eusociality to occur. This is thought to be true because of Hamilton’s rule that states that rB-C>0. By having a monogamous mating system, all of the offspring have high relatedness to each other. This means that it is equally beneficial to help out a sibling, as it is to help out an offspring. If there were many fathers the relatedness of the colony would be lowered.[9]:371–375

This monogamous mating system has been observed in insects such as termites, ants, bees and wasps.[9]:371–375 In termites the queen commits to a single male when founding a nest. In ants, bees and wasps the queens have a functional equivalent to lifetime monogamy. The male can even die before the founding of the colony. The queen can store and use the sperm from a single male throughout their lifetime, sometimes up to 30 years.[9]:371–375

In an experiment looking at the mating of 267 hymenopteran species, the results were mapped onto a phylogeny. It was found that monogamy was the ancestral state in all the independent transitions to eusociality. This indicates that monogamy is the ancestral, likely to be crucial state for the development of eusociality. In species where queens mated with multiple mates, it was found that these were developed from lineages where sterile castes already evolved, so the multiple mating was secondary.[95] In these cases, multiple mating is likely to be advantageous for reasons other than those important at the origin of eusociality. Most likely reasons are that a diverse worker pool attained by multiple mating by the queen increases disease resistance and may facilitate a division of labor among workers[9]:371–375

Communication and signalling

Communication is varied at all scales of life, from interactions between microscopic organisms to those of large groups of people. Nevertheless, the signals used in communication abide by a fundamental property: they must be a quality of the receiver that can transfer information to a receiver that is capable of interpreting the signal and modifying its behavior accordingly. Signals are distinct from cues in that evolution has selected for signalling between both parties, whereas cues are merely informative to the observer and may not have originally been used for the intended purpose. The natural world is replete with examples of signals, from the luminescent flashes of light from fireflies, to chemical signaling in red harvester ants to prominent mating displays of birds such as the Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, which gather in leks, the pheromones released by the corn earworm moth,[96] the dancing patterns of the Blue-footed Booby, or the alarm sound Synoeca cyanea make by rubbing their mandibles against their nest.[97]

The nature of communication poses evolutionary concerns, such as the potential for deceit or manipulation on the part of the sender. In this situation, the receiver must be able to anticipate the interests of the sender and act appropriately to a given signal. Should any side gain advantage in the short term, evolution would select against the signal or the response. The conflict of interests between the sender and the receiver results in an evolutionarily stable state only if both sides can derive an overall benefit.

Although the potential benefits of deceit could be great in terms of mating success, there are several possibilities for how dishonesty is controlled, which include indices, handicaps, and common interests. Indices are reliable indicators of a desirable quality, such as overall health, fertility, or fighting ability of the organism. Handicaps, as the term suggests, place a restrictive cost on the organisms that own them, and thus lower quality competitors experience a greater relative cost compared to their higher quality counterparts. In the common interest situation, it is beneficial to both sender and receiver to communicate honestly such that the benefit of the interaction is maximized.

Signals are often honest, but there are exceptions. Prime examples of dishonest signals include the luminescent lure of the anglerfish, which is used to attract prey, or the mimicry of non-poisonous butterfly species, like the Batesian mimic Papilio polyxenes of the poisonous model Battus philenor.[98] Although evolution should normally favor selection against the dishonest signal, in these cases it appears that the receiver would benefit more on average by accepting the signal.

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Further reading

  • Alcock, J. (2009). Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach (9th edition). Sinauer Associates Inc. Sunderland, MA.
  • Danchin, É., Girladeau, L.-A. and Cézilly, F. (2008). Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Perspective on Behaviour. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Krebs, J.R. and Davies, N. An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology, ISBN 0-632-03546-3
  • Krebs, J.R. and Davies, N. Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach, ISBN 0-86542-731-3

External links

  • Behavioral Ecology Blog
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