A complex social structure with fission–fusion properties can emerge from a simple foraging model
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- Ramos-Fernández, G., Boyer, D. & Gómez, V.P. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (2006) 60: 536. doi:10.1007/s00265-006-0197-x
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Precisely how ecological factors influence animal social structure is far from clear. We explore this question using an agent-based model inspired by the fission–fusion society of spider monkeys (Ateles spp). Our model introduces a realistic, complex foraging environment composed of many resource patches with size varying as an inverse power law frequency distribution with exponent β. Foragers do not interact among them and start from random initial locations. They have either a complete or a partial knowledge of the environment and maximize the ratio between the size of the next visited patch and the distance traveled to it, ignoring previously visited patches. At intermediate values of β, when large patches are neither too scarce nor too abundant, foragers form groups (coincide at the same patch) with a similar size frequency distribution as the spider monkey’s subgroups. Fission–fusion events create a network of associations that contains weak bonds among foragers that meet only rarely and strong bonds among those that repeat associations more frequently than would be expected by chance. The latter form subnetworks with the highest number of bonds and a high clustering coefficient at intermediate values of β. The weak bonds enable the whole social network to percolate. Some of our results are similar to those found in long-term field studies of spider monkeys and other fission–fusion species. We conclude that hypotheses about the ecological causes of fission–fusion and the origin of complex social structures should consider the heterogeneity and complexity of the environment in which social animals live.