Gone gorilla

Humans and lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) share many features, including strong social bonds among members of their group.  Lowland gorillas differ from humans in that one male (the silverback) dominates the group, which is composed of several females and their offspring. Some mature males are unable to attract females and may be consigned to a solitary existence.  The silverback male mates with females in his group, and may allow other females to join.  However, if a female joins a new group with an unweaned child, there is a high probability that the silverback will kill the child, as a way of getting the female into estrous more quickly, so that he can be the father of more future children.

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A group of gorillas ranges over the landscape. Credit: Céline Genton CNRS/University of Rennes

The Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo is home to several thousand lowland gorillas. Nelly Ménard and Pascaline Le Gouar (in affiliation with the ECOBIO laboratory CNRS/University of Rennes) have been studying two populations of these gorillas for over 20 years, and have identified and collected long-term data on 593 individuals from the two populations in their study. Working with their student, Alice Baudouin, and several other researchers, they documented that about 22% of the individuals were suffering from a yaws-like disease – an infectious skin disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum pertenue.

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A mother carries her infected infant. Credit: Ludovic Bouquier CNRS/University of Rennes

Females may disperse from their social group several times over the course of their lifetime.  Factors influencing the decision to disperse include availability of a higher quality silverback, reduction of predation, and avoiding inbreeding, resource competition and disease.  Given the prevalence and conspicuousness of yaws, the researchers suspected that these highly intelligent animals would use a variety of cues to inform them of whether they should disperse and which group they should attempt to join.  They expected that females should leave diseased silverbacks for healthy ones, that they should leave groups with numerous diseased individuals and immigrate into groups with healthy individuals, and that diseased females would be less likely to leave their group. Other factors influencing a gorilla’s decision might include group size, group age and whether she had an unweaned infant in her care.

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Silverback gorilla viewed from the mirador (observation post). Credit: Céline Genton CNRS/University of Rennes.

Because they considered so many variables, the researchers used their dataset to construct models of the probability of emigration (leaving the group) and immigration (entering a new group).  The research team categorized each breeding group based on the age of the oldest offspring: young (oldest offspring less than 4 years), juvenile (<7.5 years), mature (<11 years) and senescent (< 14 years). Female gorillas were more likely to emigrate if their group had numerous infected individuals (graph a below) and if the silverback was severely infected (graph b). They were also more likely to leave an older breeding group, perhaps understanding that the silverback would be losing effectiveness in the near future (graph c).  Lastly, females with unweaned infants were very unlikely to leave a group (graph d), presumably unwilling to accept the risk that their infant might starve or be killed if they attempted to join a new group.

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Probability an adult female emigrates from her group in relation to (a) number of severely diseased individuals within her group, (b) presence of severe lesions on the silverback, (c) age of the breeding group, and (d) presence of an unweaned infant.  Dotted lines (in graph a) and bars (in graphs b, c and d) indicate 95% confidence intervals.

The research team did a similar analysis of factors associated with female gorillas immigrating into a new breeding group.

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Probability an adult female immigrates into a group in relation to (a) age of group, (b) presence of severely diseased individuals, and (c) group size. Bars (in graph a and b) and dotted lines (graph c) indicate 95% confidence intervals.

 

They discovered that females were much more likely to join younger groups which had younger silverbacks (graph a).  In addition, females tended to join groups without any severely diseased individuals (graph b).  They were also attracted to smaller groups (graph c).

Based on these data, it is clear that disease strongly influences female dispersal decisions.  Females were much more likely to disperse from breeding groups with numerous infected individuals, and strongly avoided groups with more than two diseased individuals. This is not surprising, given how conspicuous these skin lesions are, particularly in the facial regions.  Contrary to expectation, female disease status (infected or not) did not influence female dispersal tendency. The researchers suggest that dispersal might not be particularly costly to the female (assuming she does not have an unweaned infant) because the home range of social groups overlap broadly so it is easy to move from one group to another, and food is also plentiful throughout the range.

Many features of a gorilla’s social environment influence its dispersal decisions. Because diseased females are as likely to disperse as healthy females, the disease pathogen may be more easily spread into previously uninfected gorilla populations.  On the other hand,  dispersing female avoidance of diseased populations has the effect of quarantining the diseased populations. The researchers hope to get a better understanding of the mechanisms of female appraisal of their social environment, so they can predict changes in the prevalence of this pathogen.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Baudouin, A., S. Gatti, F. Levrero, C. Genton, R. H. Cristescu, V. Billy, P. Motsch, J.-S. Pierre, P. Le Gouar, and N. Ménard. 2019. Disease avoidance, and breeding group age and size condition the dispersal patterns of western lowland gorilla females. Ecology 100(9): e02786. 10.1002/ecy.2786.  Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Meandering meerkats

Dispersal – the movement of individuals to a new location – is a complex process that ecologists divide into three stages: emigration (leaving the group), transience through an unfamiliar landscape, and settlement in a suitable habitat. Dispersal is fraught with danger, as dispersers usually have a higher chance of starving, of getting eaten by predators, and may suffer a low reproductive rate.  So why move?

The problem is that there are major issues with not moving.  First, if nobody disperses, population densities could increase alarmingly, putting strains on resources and increasing the incidence of disease transmission.  Second, if nobody disperses, close relatives would tend to live near each other.  If these relatives mate, there would be a high probability of bad combinations of genes being expressed, leading to developmental abnormalities or high offspring mortality (geneticists call this inbreeding depression). In social species, such as meerkats, Suricata suricatta, the issues are even more complex, as dispersal could break up social groups that work well together to detect predators or find resources.  Nino Maag and his colleagues explored what factors influence meerkat dispersal decisions, their survival and reproduction, and how those factors affected overall population dynamics in the Kuruman River Reserve in South Africa.

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A group of vigilant meerkats. Credit: Arpat Azgul

Meerkats live in groups of 2-50 individuals, with a dominant pair that monopolizes reproduction.  While pregnant, the dominant female usually evicts some subordinate females from the group; this coalition of evictees will either remain apart from the group (but within the confines of the territory) and eventually be allowed back in, or else emigrate to a new territory. By attaching radio collars to subordinate females, the researchers were able to follow emigrants to determine their fates.

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Nino Maag collects data in the Kalahari Desert while a meerkat, wearing a radio collar, strolls by. Credit: Gabriele Cozzi.

How does population density affect emigration rates of evicted females?  You might think that meerkats would be most likely to emigrate at high population density, as a way of avoiding resource competition.  As it turns out the story is more complicated.  First, individual females (solid lines in graph below) are more likely to remain with the group (not emigrate) than are groups of two or more females (dashed lines). Second, emigration rates were highest at low population density, intermediate at high population density and lowest at intermediate population density. This nonlinear effect can be explained by low benefits of remaining in a very small group, so evictees are more likely to emigrate.  But as population density (and group size) increase, then the meerkats enjoy higher success as a result of cooperation between individuals  (in particular, detecting and avoiding predators).  But when population densities get too high, there are not enough resources to go around, and evictees are more likely to emigrate.

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Proportion of evicted female meerkats that had not yet emigrated in relation to time since eviction at low (red), medium (light blue) and high (dark blue) population density.  Solid lines represent individual females, while dashed lines are coalitions of two or more females.

In addition to the density effects we just discussed, association with unrelated males from other groups early after eviction increased the probability that females would emigrate – presumably this increased the probability females would quickly create offspring in their new territory. Females also dispersed longer distances if unrelated males did not meet up with them, possibly to avoid inbreeding with closely-related males from neighboring groups.

Coalitions were more likely to return to the group if females were not pregnant – in fact 62% of pregnant evictees aborted their litters before being allowed back into the group.  Of the ones that did not abort before returning, only 42% of their litters survived to the first month.

The period of transience, when emigrators are seeking new territories can be prolonged and dangerous.  The mean dispersal distance was 2.24 km, and averaged about 46 days.  Larger coalitions with males present tended to disperse the shortest distances (left graph below). Dispersers took longest to settle at high population density – perhaps there were fewer available territories under those conditions (right graph below).

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A. Effect of coalition size and presence of unrelated males on dispersal distance. B. Effect of population density on transience time (interval between emigration and settling).

Large coalitions settled more quickly than did small coalitions, particularly if accompanied by unrelated males.  Once settled, females successfully carried through 89% of their pregnancies (compare that to the 62% abortion rate of females that returned to their original group).  These females had a litter survival rate (to the first month) of 65%.

Social and non-social species are influenced by population density in different ways.  The situation is relatively simple for non-social species; as population size increases, competition between individuals increases, so dispersal is more likely.  However, even for non-social species, we might expect dispersal at very low population levels, if there are no mates available. For social species such as meerkats, the situation is more complex.  Cooperation enhances survival and reproduction, so it is better to be in a larger group (with more cooperators). At the same time, if the group is too large, then resource competition starts being an increasingly disruptive factor. As ecologists collect more dispersal data from other social species, they will be able to test the hypothesis that population density in many species influences dispersal in a non-linear way.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Maag, N. , Cozzi, G. , Clutton‐Brock, T. and Ozgul, A. (2018), Density‐dependent dispersal strategies in a cooperative breeder. Ecology, 99: 1932-1941. doi:10.1002/ecy.2433. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.