- 1The social structure of a population plays a key role in many aspects of its ecology and biology. It influences its genetic make-up, the way diseases spread through it and the way animals exploit their environment. However, the description of social structure in nonprimate animals is receiving little attention because of the difficulty in abstracting social structure from the description of association patterns between individuals.
- 2Here we focus on recently developed analytical techniques that facilitate inference about social structure from association patterns. We apply them to the population of bottlenose dolphins residing along the Scottish east coast, to detect the presence of communities within this population and infer its social structure from the temporal variation in association patterns between individuals.
- 3Using network analytical techniques, we show that the population is composed of two social units with restricted interactions. These two units seem to be related to known differences in the ranging pattern of individuals. By examining social structuring at different spatial scales, we confirm that the identification of these two units is the result of genuine social affiliation and is not an artefact of their spatial distribution.
- 4We also show that the structure of this fission-fusion society relies principally on short-term casual acquaintances lasting a few days with a smaller proportion of associations lasting several years. These findings highlight how network analyses can be used to detect and understand the forces driving social organization of bottlenose dolphins and other social species.