Social Behavior: Agonistic, Dominance Hierarchies, & Territoriality

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  • 0:02 Social Behavior in Animals
  • 0:49 Territorial Behavior
  • 2:21 Agonistic Behavior
  • 3:48 Dominance Hierarchies
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Instead of using words, animals communicate with each other through social behaviors. These actions between individuals may be used to establish rank, defend home and breeding sites, and compete for resources.

Social Behavior in Animals

Humans communicate with each other all the time. They talk, text, email, wave, smile, and use any number of other behaviors when interacting with one another. All of these interactions between individuals fall under the category of social behavior.

But humans are not the only animals that exhibit social behavior. In fact, pretty much all organisms use one form of communication or another. When we look at how animals interact with each other, it can help us understand complex social structures among different species.

Different aspects of social behavior exist, including territoriality, agonistic behaviors, and dominance hierarchies. Let's explore each in more detail to see how these various types of social behavior work.

Territorial Behavior

It's nice to hear birds singing in the morning, isn't it? They sound so lovely and peaceful, and they just seem to brighten the day. I hate to burst your bubble, but most bird songs are actually displays of territorial behavior! These birds are defending a defined territory, which is an area that they are trying to keep others out of. Chattering squirrels are doing the same thing. They are basically telling the other squirrels to 'bug off' and find their own place to hang out.

A territory is an important place to defend because it is where the animal may mate or find food. But not all territory defenses are with sound. Some animals, such as moose, mark their territory with scent. When other moose come across this scent it serves as a strong 'DO NOT ENTER' warning from the owner of the territory. It's like putting a sign up in your front yard saying that you have a security system, therefore warning any potential burglars that they have no business breaking into your home.

Territories may be very large, as is the case with moose. But some territories are very small. Many colonial seabirds exhibit territorial behavior, but their territories are so small they could literally reach over and poke each other with their bills!

The size of the territory depends on what it's being used for. Seabirds fly away from their territory sites to look for food, so they only need a small area in order to raise their babies. The moose, on the other hand, has a very large territory because it uses it for protecting food resources.

Agonistic Behavior

Animals have confrontations just like humans do. And while they certainly don't fight over who gets the last bagel at the coffee shop, they do have conflict over food resources, partners, and territorial space.

These conflicts are often settled through agonistic behavior, which comes from the Greek 'agon' for 'struggle.' This type of behavior includes threatening displays and ritualistic fighting between the individuals involved in the confrontation.

Agonistic behavior often looks violent but is rarely so. This is because if a true fight were to break out between the individuals, both would run a high risk of getting hurt. Therefore, it's safer for both parties to 'fight' in an exaggerated, ritualized way.

Take venomous snakes for example. If they are involved in a conflict over a mate, a bite would quickly end the conflict for one of them. But if both snakes decide to chomp down, then everyone loses because both snakes will die. However, if each simply pushes the other around until one snake becomes too tired to continue, then they both live to see another day.

Think of it this way: if you and your friend get in an argument about who is faster, you could physically fight about it, but you both risk serious injury and an expensive trip to the hospital. If you instead decide to solve the conflict with a race, then one of you will 'win,' but you'll both be winners because you both come out unharmed... at least physically.

Dominance Hierarchies

There is an added benefit of not fighting to the death in a confrontation - it establishes a dominance hierarchy. This is a socially based ranking of individuals, and it sets a precedence of who is in charge. If your friend won the race, what they essentially earned was the right to gloat. Animals are similar in that the winner of a confrontation earns the right to food or mates in the future.

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