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Open Access Research article

Adaptive behavioural syndromes due to strategic niche specialization

Ralph Bergmüller12* and Michael Taborsky1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Behavioural Ecology, Institute of Zoology, University of Bern, Wohlenstr. 50a, CH-3032 Hinterkappelen, Switzerland

2 Department of Eco-Ethology, Institute of Biology, University of Neuchâtel, Rue Emile Argand 11, CH-2009 Neuchâtel, Switzerland

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BMC Ecology 2007, 7:12  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-7-12

Published: 12 October 2007



Behavioural syndromes, i.e. consistent individual differences in behaviours that are correlated across different functional contexts, are a challenge to evolutionary reasoning because individuals should adapt their behaviour to the requirements of each situation. Behavioural syndromes are often interpreted as a result of constraints resulting in limited plasticity and inflexible behaviour. Alternatively, they may be adaptive if correlated ecological or social challenges functionally integrate apparently independent behaviours. To test the latter hypothesis we repeatedly tested helpers in the cooperative breeder Neolamprologus pulcher for exploration and two types of helping behaviour. In case of adaptive behavioural syndromes we predicted a positive relationship between exploration and aggressive helping (territory defence) and a negative relationship between these behaviours and non-aggressive helping (territory maintenance).


As expected, helpers engaging more in territory defence were consistently more explorative and engaged less in territory maintenance, the latter only when dominant breeders were present. Contrary to our prediction, there was no negative relationship between exploration and territory maintenance.


Our results suggest that the three behaviours we measured are part of behavioural syndromes. These may be adaptive, in that they reflect strategic specialization of helpers into one of two different life history strategies, namely (a) to stay and help in the home territory in order to inherit the breeding position or (b) to disperse early in order to breed independently.