Nature 439, 426-429 (26 January 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature04326; Received 3 August 2005; Accepted 11 October 2005

Policing stabilizes construction of social niches in primates

Jessica C. Flack1,2,3, Michelle Girvan1, Frans B. M. de Waal2,3 & David C. Krakauer1

  1. Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501, USA
  2. Living Links Center, Yerkes National Primate Research Center,
  3. Neuroscience and Animal Behavior Program, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA

Correspondence to: Jessica C. Flack1,2,3 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.C.F. (Email:


All organisms interact with their environment, and in doing so shape it, modifying resource availability. Termed niche construction, this process has been studied primarily at the ecological level with an emphasis on the consequences of construction across generations1. We focus on the behavioural process of construction within a single generation, identifying the role a robustness mechanism2—conflict management—has in promoting interactions that build social resource networks or social niches. Using 'knockout' experiments on a large, captive group of pigtailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina), we show that a policing function, performed infrequently by a small subset of individuals3, significantly contributes to maintaining stable resource networks in the face of chronic perturbations that arise through conflict. When policing is absent, social niches destabilize, with group members building smaller, less diverse, and less integrated grooming, play, proximity and contact-sitting networks. Instability is quantified in terms of reduced mean degree, increased clustering, reduced reach, and increased assortativity. Policing not only controls conflict3, 4, 5, we find it significantly influences the structure of networks that constitute essential social resources in gregarious primate societies. The structure of such networks plays a critical role in infant survivorship6, emergence and spread of cooperative behaviour7, social learning and cultural traditions8.


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