Species interactions and population density mediate the use of social cues for habitat selection


Robert J. Fletcher, Jr., Avian Science Center, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812, USA. Tel.: (406)243 2035. Fax: (406)243 4184. E-mail: robertjfletcher@yahoo.com


  • 1The perspective that populations and communities are structured by antagonistic interactions among individuals has dominated much of ecology. Yet how animals use social information to guide decisions, such as habitat selection, may be influenced by both positive and negative interactions among individuals. Recent theory also suggests that the way animals use social information may be substantially influenced by population density, which alters the potential costs and benefits of such behaviours.
  • 2I manipulated cues of two competitors, the dominant least flycatcher Empidonax minimus (Baird & Baird) and the subordinate American redstart Setophaga ruticilla (Linnaeus), to assess the use of conspecific and heterospecific cues during habitat selection, and if population density influences these strategies. The experiment consisted of surveying birds during a pre-treatment year, which allows for the control and testing the effect of baseline densities, and a treatment year, in which treatments were applied just prior to settlement. Treatments included broadcasting songs of flycatchers and redstarts, and were compared with controls.
  • 3When controlling for pre-treatment densities, bird densities, and to a lesser extent arrival dates, during the treatment year suggested that flycatchers were attracted to both conspecific and heterospecific cues during settlement. Furthermore, attraction was strongest for flycatchers in plots with moderate pre-treatment densities. American redstarts were rare in the study area but showed apparent attraction to conspecifics and avoidance of heterospecifics.
  • 4These results provide experimental evidence for the use of multiple social cues in habitat selection and suggest that heterospecific attraction may operate under broader contexts than originally envisioned. In such instances, nontarget effects can potentially occur when manipulating social cues to elicit settlement in conservation strategies. The impact of population density on the use of social cues shown here can also influence our understanding of metapopulation dynamics by causing complex threshold effects on the likelihood of rescue, which may influence metapopulation stability and the likelihood of local extinction.