Experimental disturbances reveal group-level costs of social instability
In group-living species, social stability is an important trait associated with the evolution of complex behaviours such as cooperation. While the drivers of stability in small groups are relatively well studied, little is known about the potential impacts of unstable states on animal societies. Temporary changes in group composition, such as a social group splitting and recombining (i.e. a disturbance event), can result in individuals having to re-establish their social relationships, thus taking time away from other tasks such as foraging or vigilance. Here, we experimentally split socially stable groups of captive zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), and quantified the effects of repeated disturbance events on (1) group foraging efficiency, and (2) co-feeding associations when subgroups were recombined. We found that the efficiency of groups to deplete a rich, but ephemeral, resource patch decreased after just a single short disturbance event. Automated tracking of individuals showed that repeated disturbances reduced efficiency by causing social relationships to become more differentiated and weaker, resulting in fewer individuals simultaneously accessing the patch. Our experiment highlights how short-term disturbances can severely disrupt social structure and group functionality, revealing potential costs associated with group instability that can have consequences for the evolution of animal societies.
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