Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 65, Issue 5, pp 1061–1069 | Cite as

Highly dynamic fission–fusion species can exhibit leadership when traveling

  • Jennifer S. LewisEmail author
  • Douglas Wartzok
  • Michael R. Heithaus
Original Paper


Leadership by specific individuals is thought to enhance the fitness of followers by allowing them to take advantage of the knowledge or skills of key individuals. In general, consistent leadership is expected to occur primarily in stable groups of related individuals where the benefits enhance the inclusive fitness of a leader. Societies with less stability in group composition (i.e., fission–fusion groups) are less likely to feature unshared decision making. However, in situations where frequent interactions among individuals occur (e.g., small population size and small range of movement) and/or the complexity of the environment requires substantial experience and knowledge, consistent leadership might be expected. We tested if a highly dynamic fission–fusion population of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), inhabiting a complex environment, exhibited leadership when traveling. A small number of specific individuals led group travel more often than expected by chance, and were more likely to initiate successful direction changes of groups than following individuals. The number of leaders in a group remained relatively constant across a wide range of group sizes and was not affected by the number of potential leaders (i.e., those that had led previously) present in the group. Together, these results suggest that leadership can occur in species with high rates of group fission and fusion. Therefore, the loss of key individuals could have disproportionate effects on population dynamics.


Bottlenose dolphin Decision making Fission–fusion Group movement Group size Leadership 



Financial support for this project came from Sigma Xi, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Florida International University Graduate Student Association and Project Aware. In-kind support was provided by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Office of Key West, Florida and the Key West City Marina of Key West, Florida. J. Lewis was supported in part during the writing of this manuscript by the Florida International University Dissertation Year Fellowship. We thank all volunteer interns who gave assistance in the field and in the lab, the US Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration for allowing us to use the airspace around the island of Key West, Florida, and finally, Mote Marine Lab's Dolphin Biology Research Institute for allowing us to view and analyze overhead footage of Sarasota, Florida dolphins for pilot analysis. Improvements in the manuscript were made, thanks to helpful review by Maureen Donnelly, Andrew King, Dan Odell, Brooke Sargeant, Bennett Schwartz, and an anonymous reviewer. This research was conducted under NMFS Level B Letter of Confirmation No. 572-1639 and FIU IACUC No. 03-020.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennifer S. Lewis
    • 1
    Email author
  • Douglas Wartzok
    • 1
  • Michael R. Heithaus
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesFlorida International UniversityMiamiUSA
  2. 2.Marine Sciences ProgramFlorida International UniversityNorth MiamiUSA

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