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Social tipping points in animal societies in response to heat stress


Living systems sometimes experience abrupt tipping points in response to stress. Here we investigate the factors contributing to the appearance of such abrupt state transitions in animal societies. We first construct a mathematical account of how the personality compositions of societies could alter their propensity to shift from calm to violent states in response to thermal stress. To evaluate our model, we subjected experimental societies of the spider Anelosimus studiosus to heat stress. We demonstrate that both colony size and personality composition influence the timing of and recoverability from sudden transitions in social state. Groups composed of aggressive personalities transitioned into violent within-group dynamics sooner during heating, and also resisted recovery to baseline non-aggressive behaviour during cooling. We further observed hysteresis in groups composed of aggressive individuals, where group behaviour depended strongly on whether the colony had previously been in a calm or agitated state. These results demonstrate that a society’s susceptibility to sudden state shifts and their recoverability from them can be driven by the personalities of their constituents.

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Fig. 1: Three-state model for social tipping points in social spiders.
Fig. 2: Segmented regression representation of the relationship between temperature and colony infighting.
Fig. 3: Raw data of the relationship between temperature and colony infighting.
Fig. 4: The relationship between temperature and the frequency of interactions occurring within colonies of different sizes (6 versus 20 female spiders) and compositions (aggressive, docile, mixed), as forecasted by a numerical simulation of our model.


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E. Eliason, H. Young and D. McCauley kindly provided comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. J.N.P. was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) grants 1352705 and 1455895. J.N.P. and I.S. were supported by the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) grant 2013086.

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G.N.D., I.S., H.V.M. and J.N.P. contributed to mathematical modelling, statistical analysis, writing and figure production for this manuscript. J.N.P. collected the empirical data.

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Correspondence to Jonathan N. Pruitt.

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Doering, G.N., Scharf, I., Moeller, H.V. et al. Social tipping points in animal societies in response to heat stress. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1298–1305 (2018).

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