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Ageing red deer alter their spatial behaviour and become less social


Social relationships are important to many aspects of animals’ lives, and an individual’s connections may change over the course of their lifespan. Currently, it is unclear whether social connectedness declines within individuals as they age, and what the underlying mechanisms might be, so the role of age in structuring animal social systems remains unresolved, particularly in non-primates. Here we describe senescent declines in social connectedness using 46 years of data in a wild, individually monitored population of a long-lived mammal (European red deer, Cervus elaphus). Applying a series of spatial and social network analyses, we demonstrate that these declines occur because of within-individual changes in social behaviour, with correlated changes in spatial behaviour (smaller home ranges and movements to lower-density, lower-quality areas). These findings demonstrate that within-individual socio-spatial behavioural changes can lead older animals in fission–fusion societies to become less socially connected, shedding light on the ecological and evolutionary processes structuring wild animal populations.

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Fig. 1: Ageing was associated with reduction in social connectedness.
Fig. 2: The spatial distributions of age of mature females and grazing quality within the study area.
Fig. 3: Ageing was associated with changes in a range of socio-spatial behaviours.

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We thank NatureScot and its predecessors for permission to work on the Isle of Rum NNR. The field project has been supported by grants mainly from the UK NERC with some additional funding from BBSRC, the Royal Society and ERC. We thank all who have contributed to the maintenance of the project over time, especially L. Kruuk. We thank multiple dedicated field workers who have contributed to field data collection, especially F. Guinness, who collected the first 20 years of census data. G.F.A. was funded by NSF grant number 1414296, and by a Bruce McEwen Career Development Fellowship from the NIH Animal Models for the Social Dimensions of Health and Aging Research Network (NIH/NIH R24 AG065172). J.A.F. was supported by BBSRC (BB/S009752/1) and funding from NERC (NE/S010335/1).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



G.F.A., D.H.N. and J.A.F. devised the analysis; G.F.A. carried out the analysis and wrote the manuscript. A.M. and S.M. collected behavioural data. T.H.C.-B., J.M.P., D.H.N. and J.A.F. commented on the manuscript. T.H.C.-B. and J.M.P. oversaw wider running of the project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gregory F. Albery.

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Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Model effect estimates investigating how selective disappearance drives age-related changes in spatial behaviour (Model Set 5).

Each panel displays the model effect estimates for age and longevity for each spatial metric, demonstrating that selective disappearance was not responsible for the age-related changes in spatial behaviour, except in the case of density (a). Dots represent the mean of the posterior effect estimate distribution; error bars denote the 95% credibility intervals of the effect. The y axis is in units of standard deviations. NB density and centroid distance did not have an SPDE effect fitted to control for spatial autocorrelation because they are deterministically distributed in space, such that the SPDE effect would be uninformative.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Model estimates describing associations between spatial behaviours and social behaviours, and age-related declines in social behaviour when these variables were accounted for (Model Set 6).

Dots represent the mean of the posterior effect estimate distribution; error bars denote the 95% credibility intervals of the effect. These estimates are displayed both for the base model (a) and the SPDE model (b). HRA = home range area.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Model estimates for age effects on sociality in our longevity models (blue colours; Model Set 2); and in the same models with spatial behaviours accounted for (red colours; Model set 6).

Dots represent the mean of the posterior effect estimate distribution; error bars denote the 95% credibility intervals of the effect. Panel a displays the effects without an SPDE effect fitted; panel B displays the same effects with SPDE fitted.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Pairwise correlations among social (A) and spatial (B) behavioural metrics.

Panels that are more blue are more negative; panels that are more red are more positive.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Tables of model effect estimates.

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Albery, G.F., Clutton-Brock, T.H., Morris, A. et al. Ageing red deer alter their spatial behaviour and become less social. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 1231–1238 (2022).

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