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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Risk-sensitive foraging and the evolution of cooperative breeding and reproductive skew

Hans J Poethke1* and Jürgen Liebig2

Author Affiliations

1 University of Würzburg, Field Station Fabrikschleichach, Glashüttenstrasse 5, D-96181 Rauhenebrach, Germany

2 Arizona State University, School of Life Sciences and Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501, USA

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BMC Ecology 2008, 8:2  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-8-2

Published: 18 March 2008



Group formation and food sharing in animals may reduce variance in resource supply to breeding individuals. For some species it has thus been interpreted as a mechanism of risk avoidance. However, in many groups reproduction is extremely skewed. In such groups resources are not shared equally among the members and inter-individual variance in resource supply may be extreme. The potential consequences of this aspect of group living have not attained much attention in the context of risk sensitive foraging.


We develop a model of individually foraging animals that share resources for reproduction. The model allows analyzing how mean foraging success, inter-individual variance of foraging success, and the cost of reproduction and offspring raising influence the benefit of group formation and resource sharing. Our model shows that the effects are diametrically opposed in egalitarian groups versus groups with high reproductive skew. For individuals in egalitarian groups the relative benefit of group formation increases under conditions of increasing variance in foraging success and decreasing cost of reproduction. On the other hand individuals in groups with high skew will profit from group formation under conditions of decreasing variance in individual foraging success and increasing cost of reproduction.


The model clearly demonstrates that reproductive skew qualitatively changes the influence of food sharing on the reproductive output of groups. It shows that the individual benefits of variance reduction in egalitarian groups and variance enhancement in groups with reproductive skew depend critically on ecological and life-history parameters. Our model of risk-sensitive foraging thus allows comparing animal societies as different as spiders and birds in a single framework.