1. Understanding how variation in fitness relates to variation in group living remains critical to determine whether this major aspect of social behaviour is currently adaptive.
2. Available evidence in social mammals aimed to examine this issue remains controversial. Studies show positive (i.e. potentially adaptive), neutral or even negative fitness effects of group living.
3. Attempts to explain this variation rely on intrinsic and extrinsic factors to social groups. Thus, relatively more positive fitness effects are predicted in singularly breeding as opposed to plural breeding species. Fitness effects of sociality in turn may depend on ecological conditions (i.e. extrinsic factors) that influence associated benefits and costs.
4. We used meta-analytic tools to review how breeding strategy or ecological conditions influence the effect size associated with direct fitness-sociality relationships reported in the mammalian literature. Additionally, we determined how taxonomic affiliation of species studied, different fitness and sociality measures used, and major climatic conditions of study sites explained any variation in direct fitness effect size.
5. We found group living had modest, yet positive effects on direct fitness. This generally adaptive scenario was contingent not only upon breeding strategy and climate of study sites, but also on fitness measures examined. Thus, positive and significant effects characterized singular as opposed to plural breeding strategies.
6. We found more positive fitness effects on studies conducted in tropical as opposed to temperate or arid climates. More positive and significant effects were noted on studies that relied on group fecundity, male fecundity and offspring survival as measures of fitness.
7. To conclude, direct fitness consequences of mammalian group living are driven by interspecific differences in breeding strategy and climate conditions. Other factors not examined in this study, namely individual variation in direct and indirect fitness benefits and potential interactions between social and ecological conditions, may be important and require further studies.