Preparing for War: Pre-emptive Behaviour in a Landscape of Intergroup Conflict

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Biological Sciences


Violent confrontations between rival groups have arisen throughout human history but this is not a uniquely human phenomenon: conflict between groups occurs in all animal taxa, from ants to primates, and is a powerful evolutionary force. We now know a great deal about what happens during contests (e.g., who participates and what determines who wins) and, increasingly, about the consequences for behaviour and survival in the aftermath. However, a fundamental gap in our understanding is how non-human animals might act strategically in preparation for potential future contests. In this project, we will identify pre-emptive behaviours that could optimise intergroup encounters (balancing the risks of potential territory loss against those arising from engaging with rivals of different strengths) and maximise the likelihood of winning any contests that do arise. To do so, we will combine cutting-edge spatial mapping and movement modelling with long-term behavioural data and field experiments on a tractable wild population of dwarf mongooses.

Dwarf mongooses, Africa's smallest carnivore, are ideal for this study for several reasons. Groups comprise 5-30 individuals who sleep in a burrow, forage and travel together within a shared territory that they collectively defend against rivals. Territorial behaviour involves scent-marking at communal latrines near borders and physical defence when rivals are encountered. We have studied these charismatic mini-beasts for 10 years (Dwarf Mongoose Research Project), so have large datasets (from 73 group-years) on group movements (from GPS tracking) and a variety of behaviours, including latrine-marking, sleeping-burrow choice, within-group affiliation and sentinel activity. Moreover, we have habituated the study population to our close presence, enabling collection of body-mass data and experimental manipulations in natural conditions.

We will use existing and new data to tackle three objectives. First, we will use novel spatial modelling coupled with long-term movement and behaviour data to determine how territorial space use and defensive actions vary in a landscape of intergroup conflict. We will assess the importance of relative group size as well as historic and current rival-group activity in predicting how the mongooses exploit their environment and minimise intergroup risk. Second, we will use detailed long-term observations and a field manipulation of spatial threat level to determine how behaviour changes strategically when there is the prospect of an imminent intergroup contest. We will identify how different individuals enhance information gathering, group cohesion and the likelihood of groupmate participation in later contests, and assess the consequences for body-mass gains. Third, we will manipulate aggression and affiliation between selected groupmates to test experimentally how pre-emptive within-group behaviour affects subsequent contributions to intergroup interactions.

We will therefore generate the first detailed and experimental datasets investigating the use of strategic pre-emptive behaviour by non-human animals in an intergroup context. As such, our work will be of relevance to biologists studying group living, conflict, territoriality, cooperation, social evolution and future planning. Moreover, our use of novel analytical models that quantify the encounter probability of rival groups in a heterogeneous landscape will be of benefit to spatial and movement ecologists. Since the management and consequences of conflict have interdisciplinary implications, our research will complement that by anthropologists, psychologists, and social and political scientists. Finally, because conflict is common in our own lives, from disputes among family members to wars between nations, we will use a programme of outreach and public engagement activities to enthuse and inform a wider audience about our research on social evolution and the importance of blue-skies research.


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