Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 546–551
The ubiquity of cooperation in nature is puzzling because cooperators can be exploited by defectors. Recent theoretical work shows that if dynamic networks define interactions between individuals, cooperation is favoured by natural selection. To address this, we compare cooperative behaviour in multiple but independent repeated games between participants in static and dynamic networks. In the latter, participants could break their links after each social interaction. As predicted, we find higher levels of cooperation in dynamic networks. Through biased link breaking (i.e. to defectors) participants affected their social environment. We show that this link-breaking behaviour leads to substantial network clustering and we find primarily cooperators within these clusters. This assortment is remarkable because it occurred on top of behavioural assortment through direct reciprocity and beyond the perception of participants, and represents a self-organized pattern. Our results highlight the importance of the interaction between ecological context and selective pressures on cooperation.