1. The formation of groups is a fundamental aspect of social organization, but there are still many questions regarding how social structure emerges from individuals making non-random associations.
2. Although food distribution and individual phenotypic traits are known to separately influence social organization, this is the first study, to our knowledge, experimentally linking them to demonstrate the importance of their interaction in the emergence of social structure.
3. Using an experimental design in which food distribution was either clumped or dispersed, in combination with individuals that varied in exploratory behaviour, our results show that social structure can be induced in the otherwise non-social European shore crab (Carcinus maenas).
4. Regardless of food distribution, individuals with relatively high exploratory behaviour played an important role in connecting otherwise poorly connected individuals. In comparison, low exploratory individuals aggregated into cohesive, stable subgroups (moving together even when not foraging), but only in tanks where resources were clumped. No such non-foraging subgroups formed in environments where food was evenly dispersed.
5. Body size did not accurately explain an individual’s role within the network for either type of food distribution.
6. Because of their synchronized movements and potential to gain social information, groups of low exploratory crabs were more effective than singletons at finding food.
7. Because social structure affects selection, and social structure is shown to be sensitive to the interaction between ecological and behavioural differences among individuals, local selective pressures are likely to reflect this interaction.