Get access

Adaptive responses and disruptive effects: how major wildfire influences kinship-based social interactions in a forest marsupial


Sam Banks, Fax: +613 61250757; E-mail:


Environmental disturbance is predicted to play a key role in the evolution of animal social behaviour. This is because disturbance affects key factors underlying social systems, such as demography, resource availability and genetic structure. However, because natural disturbances are unpredictable there is little information on their effects on social behaviour in wild populations. Here, we investigated how a major wildfire affected cooperation (sharing of hollow trees) by a hollow-dependent marsupial. We based two alternative social predictions on the impacts of fire on population density, genetic structure and resources. We predicted an adaptive social response from previous work showing that kin selection in den-sharing develops as competition for den resources increases. Thus, kin selection should occur in burnt areas because the fire caused loss of the majority of hollow-bearing trees, but no detectable mortality. Alternatively, fire may have a disruptive social effect, whereby postfire home range-shifts ‘neutralize’ fine-scale genetic structure, thereby removing opportunities for kin selection between neighbours. Both predictions occurred: the disruptive social effect in burnt habitat and the adaptive social response in adjacent unburnt habitat. The latter followed a massive demographic influx to unburnt ‘refuge’ habitat that increased competition for dens, leading to a density-related kin selection response. Our results show remarkable short-term plasticity of animal social behaviour and demonstrate how the social effects of disturbance extend into undisturbed habitat owing to landscape-scale demographic shifts. We predicted long-term changes in kinship-based cooperative behaviour resulting from the genetic and resource impacts of forecast changes to fire regimes in these forests.