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Heterarchy Reveals Social Organization of a Smooth Stingray (Bathytoshia brevicaudata) Population in a Provisioned Food Context

29 April 2021 / Source: frontiersin.org

The advent of new technologies and statistical analyses has provided valuable insights into chondrichthyan social behavior. It has become apparent that sharks and rays lead more complex social lives than previously believed. Heterarchy combines hierarchy and social network theory and although it is not a new concept, it is rarely applied to animal social interactions. Here, we applied heterarchy to a case study involving smooth stingrays foraging for fish scraps at boat ramp in Jervis Bay, NSW Australia. We took advantage of their attraction to this site to examine their social behavior during agonistic interactions over the provisioned resource. We observed a stable, relatively linear but shallow dominance hierarchy that was highly transitive dominated by a single individual. Social network analysis revealed a non-random social network centered on the dominant individual. Contrary to previous research, size did not predict dominance, but it was correlated with network centrality. The factors determining dominance of lower ranks were difficult to discern, which is characteristic of despotic societies. This study provides the first heterarchical assessment of stingray sociality, and suggests this species is capable of complex social behavior. Given higher dominance and centrality relate to greater access to the provisioned resource, the observed social structure likely has fitness implications.

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