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The Influence of Social Context on Animal Behavior: Implications for Conservation

  • Author(s): Owen, Megan
  • Advisor(s): Blumstein, Daniel T
  • et al.
Abstract

The pervasive perturbation of natural systems by human activities has rapidly changed the social context of many free-ranging animals, potentially reducing the efficiency of reproductive strategies, as well as the effective population size (Ne). Behavioral flexibility can be beneficial to species confronted with rapid contextual change, and the range of flexibility may ultimately influence whether a species can buy the time needed to respond adaptively to change. From the perspective of conservation management, an understanding of species' behavioral flexibility may improve predictions regarding the effects of rapid environmental change on populations, and facilitate the application of behavioral knowledge to conservation management. Fundamentally, an animal's decision-making processes are responsible for generating flexible behavioral responses, thus the lability of mechanisms underpinning decision-making influences the flexibility of behavioral responses. Here I evaluate the study of animal decision-making across scientific disciplines. I critically assess the use of animal decision-making in conservation and suggest ways in which decision theory could enhance conservation strategies. My empirical research is focused on the influence of social context on behavioral flexibility in the endangered giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). The panda is a compelling species in which to study behavioral flexibility in the conservation context, because they are solitary, and females are seasonally-monoestrus and ovulate spontaneously. While energetic constraints play a prominent role in reproductive strategies, little is known regarding their mating system or the plasticity of reproductive behavior. Pandas are behaviorally expressive, using multiple modes of signaling during courtship, however, a holistic understanding of multimodal signaling in the species is lacking. Further, although populations are depleted throughout most of their range, the influence of social context on behavior and communication has not been described. Here we show that female signaling effort is generally lower in the exclusive presence of other females, suggesting that females can modify their behavioural efforts during the pre-ovulatory period according to the prevailing social context. We also found that multimodal signaling during social interactions did not consistently evoke an immediate, discrete response from receivers. Together these findings suggest that giant pandas demonstrate a limited degree of flexible behavioral responses dependent upon the prevailing social context.

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