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Open Access Research article

Patch depletion, niche structuring and the evolution of co-operative foraging

Daniel J van der Post123* and Dirk Semmann1

Author Affiliations

1 Courant Research Centre Evolution of Social Behaviour, Georg-August Universität Göttigen, Kellnerweg 6, 37077, Göttingen, Germany

2 Institute of Artificial Intelligence, University of Groningen, P.O. Box 407, 9700 AK, Groningen, The Netherlands

3 Behavioural Ecology and Self-Organization, University of Groningen, PO Box 11103, 9700 CC Groningen, The Netherlands

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:335  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-335

Published: 17 November 2011



Many animals live in groups. One proposed reason is that grouping allows cooperative food finding. Group foraging models suggest that grouping could increase food finding rates, but that such group processes could be evolutionarily unstable. These models assume discrete food patches which are fully detectable. However, often animals may only be able to perceive local parts of larger-scale environmental patterns. We therefore use a spatial individual-based model where food patches are aggregates of food items beyond the scale of individual perception. We then study the evolution of foraging and grouping behavior in environments with different resource distributions.


Our results show that grouping can evolve to increase food intake rates. Two kinds of grouping evolve: traveling pairs and opportunistic grouping, where individuals only aggregate when feeding. Grouping evolves because it allows individuals to better sense and deplete patches. Such enhanced patch depletion is particularly apparent on fragmented and partially depleted patches, which are especially difficult for solitary foragers to deplete. Solitary foragers often leave a patch prematurely because a whole patch cannot be observed directly. In groups, individuals that are still eating allow other individuals that inadvertently leave the patch, to return and continue feeding. For this information sharing a grouping tendency is sufficient and observing whether a neighbor is eating is not necessary. Grouping therefore leads to a release from individual sensing constraints and a shift in niche specialization, allowing individuals to better exploit partially depleted patches.


The evolved group foraging can be seen as cooperative in the sense that it leads to a mutually-beneficial synergy: together individuals can achieve more than on their own. This cooperation exists as a group-level process generated by the interaction between grouping and the environment. Thus we reveal how such a synergy can originate in evolution as a side-effect of grouping via multi-level selection. Here there is no cooperative dilemma as individuals cannot avoid producing information for their neighbors. This scenario may be a useful starting point for studying the evolution of further social and cooperative complexity.