The role of habitat configuration in shaping social structure: a gap in studies of animal social complexity

Peng He, Adriana A. Maldonado-Chaparro, Damien R. Farine

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

106 Scopus citations


Abstract: Animal societies are shaped both by social processes and by the physical environment in which social interactions take place. While many studies take the observed patterns of inter-individual interactions as products and proxies of pure social processes, or as links between resource availability and social structure, the role of the physical configuration of habitat features in shaping the social system of group-living animals remains largely overlooked. We hypothesise that by shaping the decisions about when and where to move, physical features of the environment will impact which individuals more frequently encounter one another and in doing so the overall social structure and social organization of populations. We first discuss how the spatial arrangement of habitat components (i.e. habitat configuration) can shape animal movements using empirical cases in the literature. Then, we draw from the empirical literature to discuss how movement patterns of individuals mediate the patterns of social interactions and social organization and highlight the role of network-based approaches in identifying, evaluating and partitioning the effects of habitat configuration on animal social structure or organization. We illustrate the combination of these mechanisms using a simple simulation. Finally, we discuss the implications of habitat configuration in shaping the ecology and evolution of animal societies and offer a framework for future studies. We highlight future directions for studies in animal societies that are increasingly important in widely human-modified landscapes, in particular the implications of habitat-driven social structure in evolution. Significance statement: There is now clear evidence that simple processes can generate apparent complex patterns of social structure. However, while studies such as those on collective behaviour and social networks have been focused on processes involving individual decision-making, broader patterns of social structure and social organization can also be shaped by factors that have more fundamental impacts on the movements of animals. One set of those factors is related to the amount and spatial arrangement of both biotic and abiotic components of the habitat in which animals live. Examples include the configuration formed by habitat patches connected through corridors, by the presence of hard boundaries between habitat types or by the uneven distribution of resources, mates and competitors across space. In this contribution, we highlight the potential effects of these, which are becoming increasingly important as studies start being able to track populations spanning larger landscapes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number9
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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