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From monogamy to complexity: social organization of arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) in contrasting ecosystems

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Canids display pronounced intraspecific variation in social organization, ranging from single breeding females to large and complex groups. Despite several hypotheses in this matter, little is understood about the ecological factors underlying this flexibility. We have used the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus (L., 1758)) to investigate how contrasting ecosystem conditions concerning resources and predation influence group formation. We predicted that complex groups are more common in resource-rich ecosystems with predators, whereas simple groups occur in more marginal ecosystems without predators. Samples from 54 groups were collected from four populations of arctic foxes with contrasting prey resources and predation and these samples were genotyped in 10 microsatellite loci. We found considerable variation between ecosystems and a significant relationship between resources and formation of complex groups. We conclude that sufficient amounts of food is a prerequisite for forming complex groups, but that defense against predation further increases the benefits of living in larger groups. We present a conceptual model suggesting that a trade-off between the cost of resource depletion and the benefits obtained for guarding against predators explain the differences in social organization. The variable ecology of the arctic foxes makes it is a plausible model species for understanding the connection between ecology and social organization also in other species.

Keywords: Vulpes lagopus; arctic fox; compromis; filiation; hypothèse de la dispersion des ressources; microsatellites; parentage; predation; prédation; renard arctique; resource dispersion hypothesis; trade-off

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Institute of Biology, University of Iceland, Stugata 7, IS-101 Reykjavik, Iceland. 2: Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SE-730 91 Riddarhyttan, Sweden. 3: Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, N-7485 Trondheim, Norway. 4: Norwegian Polar Institute, FRAM Centre, N-9296 Tromsø, Norway. 5: Department of Zoology, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.

Publication date: 2012-09-17

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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