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Journal Article

The importance of the altricial – precocial spectrum for social complexity in mammals and birds – a review


Weiß,  Brigitte M.
Junior Research Group of Primate Kin Selection, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Max Planck Society;
Department of Primatology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Max Planck Society;

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Scheiber, I. B. R., Weiß, B. M., Kingma, S. A., & Komdeur, J. (2017). The importance of the altricial – precocial spectrum for social complexity in mammals and birds – a review. Frontiers in Zoology, 14: 3. doi:10.1186/s12983-016-0185-6.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002C-7B67-7
Various types of long-term stable relationships that individuals uphold, including cooperation and competition between group members, define social complexity in vertebrates. Numerous life history, physiological and cognitive traits have been shown to affect, or to be affected by, such social relationships. As such, differences in developmental modes, i.e. the ‘altricial-precocial’ spectrum, may play an important role in understanding the interspecific variation in occurrence of social interactions, but to what extent this is the case is unclear because the role of the developmental mode has not been studied directly in across-species studies of sociality. In other words, although there are studies on the effects of developmental mode on brain size, on the effects of brain size on cognition, and on the effects of cognition on social complexity, there are no studies directly investigating the link between developmental mode and social complexity. This is surprising because developmental differences play a significant role in the evolution of, for example, brain size, which is in turn considered an essential building block with respect to social complexity. Here, we compiled an overview of studies on various aspects of the complexity of social systems in altricial and precocial mammals and birds. Although systematic studies are scarce and do not allow for a quantitative comparison, we show that several forms of social relationships and cognitive abilities occur in species along the entire developmental spectrum. Based on the existing evidence it seems that differences in developmental modes play a minor role in whether or not individuals or species are able to meet the cognitive capabilities and requirements for maintaining complex social relationships. Given the scarcity of comparative studies and potential subtle differences, however, we suggest that future studies should consider developmental differences to determine whether our finding is general or whether some of the vast variation in social complexity across species can be explained by developmental mode. This would allow a more detailed assessment of the relative importance of developmental mode in the evolution of vertebrate social systems.