Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Popularity contests

Yellow-bellied marmots are social animals. They tend to live in family groups and interact with each other to coordinate mating, determine dominance hierarchies, say hello, keep warm, or just play and have fun. However, all marmots are not created equal, and some individuals are friendlier than others. As in any circle of friends, some are reserved and keep to themselves, some are bullied and picked on by others, and some are always ready to play and socialize. We wondered whether these individual differences in social behavior were a result of genetics or environment, and furthermore, whether animals with certain types of social tendencies were more or less successful than other animals in the group.

Our results suggest that the way marmots behave with their friends is partially explained by genetics. Interestingly, the likelihood of being bullied or picked on by other marmots has a large genetic component. Furthermore, we also found that “popular” marmots were more successful than individuals without a lot of connections. These popular individuals that interacted with numerous friends and were well integrated in their group tended to live longer and have more children than reserved, isolated individuals. Popular individuals could even fight with others and still enjoy the benefits of friendship, it seems that having lots of relationships is more important than them being harmonious all the time. It’s better to have friends (and endure the quarrels that often arise) than to not have friends at all!

Photo caption: Two young siblings sit together on a rock outside our cabin. Photo credit: Amanda Lea.

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