Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 267–283 | Cite as

Negative niche construction favors the evolution of cooperation

  • Brian D. Connelly
  • Katherine J. Dickinson
  • Sarah P. Hammarlund
  • Benjamin KerrEmail author
Original Paper


By benefitting others at a cost to themselves, cooperators face an ever present threat from defectors—individuals that avail themselves of the cooperative benefit without contributing. A longstanding challenge to evolutionary biology is to understand the mechanisms that support the many instances of cooperation that nevertheless exist. In spatially-structured environments, clustered cooperator populations reach greater densities, which creates more mutational opportunities to gain beneficial non-social adaptations. Hammarlund et al. recently demonstrated that cooperation rises in abundance by hitchhiking with these non-social mutations. However, once adaptive opportunities have been exhausted, the ride abruptly ends as cooperators are displaced by adapted defectors. Using an agent-based model, we demonstrate that the selective feedback that is created as populations construct their local niches can maintain cooperation at high proportions and even allow cooperators to invade. This cooperator success depends specifically on negative niche construction, which acts as a perpetual source of adaptive opportunities. As populations adapt, they alter their environment in ways that reveal additional opportunities for adaptation. Despite being independent of niche construction in our model, cooperation feeds this cycle. By reaching larger densities, populations of cooperators are better able to adapt to changes in their constructed niche and successfully respond to the constant threat posed by defectors. We relate these findings to previous studies from the niche construction literature and discuss how this model could be extended to provide a greater understanding of how cooperation evolves in the complex environments in which it is found.


Adaptation Cooperation Genetic hitchhiking Niche construction 



We are grateful to Peter Conlin, Sylvie Estrela, Carrie Glenney, Martha Kornelius, and Luis Zaman for helpful comments on the manuscript, and to Anuraag Pakanati for assistance with simulations. BK thanks Kevin Laland, Marc Feldman, John Odling-Smee, Lucy Odling-Smee, and Doug Irwin for the invitation to participate in the Frontiers in Niche Construction meeting at SFI. This material is based upon research supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DBI-1309318 (Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology to BDC), Cooperative Agreement DBI-0939454 (BEACON STC), and Grant DEB-0952825 (CAREER Award to BK). Computational resources were provided by an award from Google Inc. (to BDC and BK).

Supplementary material

10682_2015_9803_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (4.6 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (pdf 4753 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian D. Connelly
    • 1
  • Katherine J. Dickinson
    • 1
  • Sarah P. Hammarlund
    • 1
    • 2
  • Benjamin Kerr
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Biology and BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in ActionUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of ZoologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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