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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social network theory: new insights and issues for behavioral ecologists

  • Author(s): Sih, Andrew
  • Hanser, Sean F.
  • McHugh, Katherine A.
  • et al.

Until recently, few studies have used social network theory (SNT) and metrics to examine how social network structure (SNS) might influence social behavior and social dynamics in non-human animals. Here, we present an overview of why and how the social network approach might be useful for behavioral ecology. We first note four important aspects of SNS that are commonly observed, but relatively rarely quantified: (1) that within a social group, differences among individuals in their social experiences and connections affect individual and group outcomes; (2) that indirect connections can be important (e.g., partners of your partners matter); (3) that individuals differ in their importance in the social network (some can be considered keystone individuals); and (4) that social network traits often carry over across contexts (e.g., SN position in male–male competition can influence later male mating success). We then discuss how these four points, and the social network approach in general, can yield new insights and questions for a broad range of issues in behavioral ecology including: mate choice, alternative mating tactics, male–male competition, cooperation, reciprocal altruism, eavesdropping, kin selection, dominance hierarchies, social learning, information flow, social foraging, and cooperative antipredator behavior. Finally, we suggest future directions including: (1) integrating behavioral syndromes and SNT; (2) comparing space use and SNS; (3) adaptive partner choice and SNS; (4) the dynamics and stability (or instability) of social networks, and (5) group selection shaping SNS.

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