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Impact of Environmental Disturbance on the Stability and Benefits of Individual Status within Dominance Hierarchies


Lynne U. Sneddon, University of Liverpool, School of Biological Sciences, The BioScience Building, Liverpool L69 7ZB, UK. E-mail:


Changes in environmental conditions affect social interactions and thus may modify an individual's competitive ability within a social group. We subjected three-spined sticklebacks, Gasterosteus aculeatus, housed in groups of four individuals, to environmental perturbations to assess the impact on dominance hierarchy stability. Hierarchy stability decreased during increased turbulence or lowered water levels (‘simulated drought’) whereas control hierarchies became more stable in a constant environment. The dominant individual either became more aggressive and remained dominant during the environmental manipulation or was usurped by a lower rank member. Only simulated drought affected rates of aggression where levels of aggression were higher after the water level was dropped which may be the result of an increased encounter rate in these conditions. When there were large size differences between the group members, the dominant individual performed the greatest amount of aggression and ate the largest proportion of food and there was little aggressive behaviour from the lower ranks. In groups of similar-sized individuals, aggression was much higher. The benefit of being dominant was to gain weight over the experimental period whereas ranks 2 and 3 lost weight. The lowest rank, 4, actually gained weight over the experimental period. This study suggests that it would benefit an individual to be dominant, highly aggressive and gain weight or be submissive, avoid aggressive interactions and, by sneakily obtaining access to food, also gain weight. Altering environmental conditions has a profound effect on social behaviour in this study.