Skip to main content

Social position indirectly influences the traits yellow-bellied marmots use to solve problems


Animals adapt to changing environments by behaving flexibly when solving problems. Traits, such as sex and age, and specifically behavioral traits like persistence–the amount of time spent attempting to solve a problem, are positively associated with successful problem-solving. However, individuals face social pressures, such as aggression, which may directly alter an individual’s behavior or interact with sex or age, when they attempt to problem-solve. We examined the direct and indirect effects of social position and individual behavioral traits on solving a novel puzzle box in facultatively social yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventer), using both generalized linear mixed models and confirmatory path analysis. We found strong support that marmots who used a diversity of behaviors were more successful problem-solvers and weak support that those who received more aggression were less successful. Additionally, marmots who received more aggression were less behaviorally diverse, less behaviorally selective and less persistent while trying to open the puzzle box. Thus, we show that aggression indirectly decreases problem-solving success by acting on the behavioral traits that an individual uses. We conclude that specific social relationships, including the type of interaction and whether they are recipients or initiators, influences the ways in which an individual interacts with cognitive tests and should be considered in analysis of individual problem-solving.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


Download references


We thank the 2018 Marmoteers (Alex Jebb, Alyssa Morgan, Nitin Vincent, Julia Nelson, Anita Montero, Katherine Ziska, Eliza Foli) for keeping the puzzle boxes up and the video crew (Andrew Evans, Nicole Ugorji, Briana Barr, Griffin Nicholson, Grace Kim, Samantha Ono, Roger Zhang and Chloe Tilton) for their help in managing the videos. Additional thanks to Aimee Classen, Ben Blonder, Noa Rigoudy, and Andy Lim and Siavash Jalal (UCLA statistical consulting) for help interpreting SEM models. We thank the Blumstein Lab group, Noa Pinter-Wollman, Peter Nonacs, Greg Grether, and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback on various versions of this paper.


D.M.W. was supported by an Animal Behavior Society Student Research Grant, an American Society of Mammologists Grants-in-Aid of Research, a UCLA EEB Fellowship, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1650604). C.W. was a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Fellow under D.T.B. at the time of this research. D.T.B. was supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB 1557130 to D.T.B., as well as D.B.I. 1646666 to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Conceptualization, DMW, DTB and CW; methodology DTB and DMW; investigation DMW and CW; formal analysis DTB, DMW and CW; writing-original draft DMW and CW; writing—review & editing DMW, DTB and CW; resources DMW and DTB.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dana M. Williams.

Ethics declarations

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics approval

The marmot study population is free-living and could freely interact with or leave the puzzle box as they desired. None were harmed by interacting with the box. Injuries are very rare during trapping and typically involves scrapes that are treated during handling. Marmots were studied under ARC protocol 2001-191-01 by the University of California Los Angeles Animal Care Committee on 13 May 2002, and renewed annually, as well as annual permits issued by the Colorado Division of Wildlife (TR519) and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory’s Animal Care Committee.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary Information

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file1 (DOCX 29 KB)

Supplementary file2 (MP4 31692 KB)

Supplementary file2 (MP4 31692 KB)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Williams, D.M., Wu, C. & Blumstein, D.T. Social position indirectly influences the traits yellow-bellied marmots use to solve problems. Anim Cogn 24, 829–842 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Social networks
  • Structural equation modeling
  • Yellow-bellied marmots
  • Problem-solving
  • Cognition
  • innovation