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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Rapid evolution of cooperation in group-living animals

Mathias Franz12*, Oliver Schülke1 and Julia Ostner1

Author Affiliations

1 Courant Research Center Evolution of Social Behavior, University of Göttingen, Kellnerweg 6, Göttingen 37077, Germany

2 Department of Biology, Duke University, Box 90338, Durham, NC 27708, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:235  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-235

Published: 29 October 2013



It is often assumed that evolution takes place on very large timescales. Countering this assumption, rapid evolutionary dynamics are increasingly documented in biological systems, e.g. in the context of predator–prey interactions, species coexistence and invasion. It has also been shown that rapid evolution can facilitate the evolution of cooperation. In this context often evolutionary dynamics influence population dynamics, but in spatial models rapid evolutionary dynamics also emerge with constant population sizes. Currently it is not clear how well these spatial models apply to species in which individuals are not embedded in fixed spatial structures. To address this issue we employ an agent-based model of group living individuals. We investigate how positive assortment between cooperators and defectors and pay-off differences between cooperators and defectors depend on the occurrence of evolutionary dynamics.


We find that positive assortment and pay-off differences between cooperators and defectors differ when comparing scenarios with and without selection, which indicates that rapid evolutionary dynamics are occurring in the selection scenarios. Specifically, rapid evolution occurs because changes in positive assortment feed back on evolutionary dynamics, which crucially impacts the evolution of cooperation. At high frequencies of cooperators these feedback dynamics increase positive assortment facilitating the evolution of cooperation. In contrast, at low frequencies of cooperators rapid evolutionary dynamics lead to a decrease in assortment, which acts against the evolution of cooperation. The contrasting dynamics at low and high frequencies of cooperators create positive frequency-dependent selection.


Rapid evolutionary dynamics can influence the evolution of cooperation in group-living species and lead to positive frequency-dependent selection even if population size and maximum group-size are not affected by evolutionary dynamics. Rapid evolutionary dynamics can emerge in this case because sufficiently strong selective pressures allow evolutionary and demographic dynamics, and consequently also feedback between assortment and evolution, to occur on the same timescale. In particular, emerging positive frequency-dependent selection could be an important explanation for differences in cooperative behaviors among different species with similar population structures such as humans and chimpanzees.