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Solitary versus group living lifestyles, social group composition and cooperation in otters

Abstract : Increased reproduction success, enhanced foraging and reduced predation risk are usually regarded as major factors favouring the evolution of social behaviour. Here we formulate a series of hypotheses relating sexual, ecological and behavioural factors to evaluate their explanatory value for 13 extant otter species, estimating the extent to which each factor contributes to the sociality of each species. We also compare individual behaviours within some of the species. Four otter species are obligatory social; four are obligatory solitary; five present both types of social organization. Social organizations of otter species are not related to their phylogenetic relationships. However, many otter species exhibit intra-species patterns of flexible social lifestyles. Both solitary and social otters adjust their social patterns in response chiefly to food availability, but also to habitat features and competition. Group living is more common when intraspecific competition is reduced or trophic resources replenish rapidly. Under these circumstances, group members often forage individually. When otters forage individually, they often switch prey type when they compete with other conspecifics. Social structures of otters fall into seven types: (1) family groups; (2) extended family groups, often with an alpha dominant pair; (3) highly social groups with helpers; (4) collective hunting groups; (5) solitary lifestyle; (6) unstable mixed-sex groups; and (7) single-sex bachelor groups. When an individual of a species with variable sociality adopts one type of sociality, this may be only temporary. Variations in social life are actually based on a series of events that induce individuals to make decisions taking ecological factors into account. Although ontogenetic factors can influence delayed dispersal of otters, social factors rather than ecological factors could play an important role in the formation of groups, and cohesiveness and kinship appear to be secondary effects of reduced dispersal more than primary causes for living in a group. Appropriate adjustment of group behaviour reduces the cost of sociality because individuals avoid social interactions when benefits are low but gather together when group living provides real advantages. Although any one model is unlikely to explicate all facets of sociality, evolution towards a social group results mainly from interactions within a family.
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Thierry Lodé, Marie-Loup Lélias, Alban Lemasson, Catherine Blois-Heulin. Solitary versus group living lifestyles, social group composition and cooperation in otters. Mammal Research, 2020, ⟨10.1007/s13364-020-00536-5⟩. ⟨hal-02950722⟩

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