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Open habitats promote female group formation in a solitary ungulate: the Japanese serow

Abstract

Understanding the factors that drive the evolution of sociality is one of the central issues in behavioural ecology. In ungulates, open habitats, such as alpine meadows, are thought to have promoted the evolution of various gregarious societies from solitary territorial lifestyles. However, the transition from a solitary territorial lifestyle to a gregarious society and the ultimate factors underlying this change remain unclear. The Japanese serow is a primal solitary ungulate. Females in forest-dwelling populations have solitary territorial lifestyles, but the social relationships among females in open-land dwelling populations have not been explored. We evaluated the spatial organisation and social interactions among female Japanese serows in an area with alpine meadows and subalpine forests and examined the effects of alpine meadows on female social relationships through within-population comparisons. We confirmed the presence of both spatially solitary animals (little home range overlap with other individuals) and spatial groups (large home range overlap with two to three individuals), having exclusive territories. Females with more alpine meadows in their home range formed group territories, whereas those with more subalpine forests formed solitary territories. Accordingly, we show, for the first time, that open habitats promote the formation of female spatial groups in a primal solitary ungulate. We suggest that homogenous food distribution and abundant food supply in alpine meadows promote spatial group formation and that the mitigation of exclusive relationships and home range overlapping is a transitional phase for the development of gregarious societies.

Significance statement

We found spatial group formations among females in a primal solitary ungulate, the Japanese serow, which were promoted by open habitats, such as alpine meadows. Our findings provide evidence for an evolutionary pattern in ungulates, whereby open habitat structures promote the evolution from solitary, territorial lifestyles, to gregarious societies. This indicates that the mitigation of exclusive relationships (i.e. territoriality) and the overlapping of home ranges among females is a transitional phase for the development of gregarious societies. Homogenous food distribution and an abundant food supply in the alpine meadows appear to promote the formation of spatial groups, suggesting that food abundance and distribution are among the important ultimate factors that potentially contribute to the evolution of gregarious societies.

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Acknowledgements

Fieldwork was facilitated by the Kazankan of Komoro city government; Keisuke Kanda and other staff members assisted us in the field. We thank Keita Nakamura (Yokohama), Haruko Watanabe (Yokohama), Risako Yano (Hyougo), Akane Washida (Yamanashi), Riki Ohuchi (Tokyo), Konoka Aiba (Yokohama), and Takuma Suzuki (Sagamihara) for their help in behavioural observations. This study was supported in part by the Pro Natura Foundation Japan (Tokyo). We are grateful to Kathreen Eva Ruckstuhl, Luca Corlatti, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful suggestions on previous drafts of the manuscript.

Data and materials availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article (and its supplementary information files).

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The code used in the current study is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Funding

This study was supported in part by the Pro Natura Foundation Japan (grant number: Domestic Research-26).

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HT contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection, and analysis were performed by HT. The first draft of the manuscript was written by HT and MM commented on previous versions of the manuscript. Both the authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Hayato Takada.

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All investigations were performed in accordance with the Ethics Committee for Animal Experiments, Mount Fuji Research Institute, Yamanashi Prefecture Government (ECAE-01-2013-2019). The study complies with the Mammal Society of Japan guidelines regarding animal welfare and adheres to the ASAB/ABS guidelines for the use of animals in behavioural research.

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Communicated by K. Eva Ruckstuhl

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Takada, H., Minami, M. Open habitats promote female group formation in a solitary ungulate: the Japanese serow. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 75, 60 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-021-02999-1

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Keywords

  • Alpine meadow
  • Group territory
  • Japanese serow
  • Social evolution
  • Solitary ungulate
  • Spatial organisation