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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2000 Feb;75(1):1-20.

Adaptive explanation in socio-ecology: lessons from the Equidae.

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Institute of Natural Resources, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.


Socio-ecological explanations for intra- and interspecific variation in the social and spatial organization of animals predominate in the scientific literature. The socio-ecological model, developed first for the Bovidae and Cervidae, is commonly applied more widely to other groups including the Equidae. Intraspecific comparisons are particularly valuable because they allow the role of environment and demography on social and spatial organization to be understood while controlling for phylogeny or morphology which confound interspecific comparisons. Feral horse (Equus caballus Linnaeus 1758) populations with different demography inhabit a range of environments throughout the world. I use 56 reports to obtain 23 measures or characteristics of the behaviour and the social and spatial organization of 19 feral horse populations in which the environment, demography, management, research effort and sample size are also described. Comparison shows that different populations had remarkably similar social and spatial organization and that group sizes and composition, and home range sizes varied as much within as between populations. I assess the few exceptions to uniformity and conclude that they are due to the attributes of the studies themselves, particularly to poor definition of terms and inadequate empiricism, rather than to the environment or demography per se. Interspecific comparisons show that equid species adhere to their different social and spatial organizations despite similarities in their environments and even when species are sympatric. Furthermore, equid male territoriality has been ill-defined in previous studies, observations presented as evidence of territoriality are also found in non-territorial equids, and populations of supposedly territorial species demonstrate female defence polygyny. Thus, territoriality may not be a useful categorization in the Equidae. Moreover, although equid socio-ecologists have relied on the socio-ecological model derived from the extremely diverse Bovidae and Cervidae for explanations of variation in equine society, the homomorphic, but large and polygynous, and monogeneric Equidae do not support previous socio-ecological explanations for relationships between body size, mating system and sexual dimorphism in ungulates. Consequently, in spite of the efforts of numerous authors during the past two decades, functional explanations of apparent differences in feral horse and equid social and spatial organization and behaviour based on assumptions of their current utility in the environmental or demographic context remain unconvincing. Nevertheless, differences in social cohesion between species that are insensitive to intra- and interspecific variation in habitat and predation pressure warrant explanation. Thus, I propose alternative avenues of inquiry including testing for species-specific differences in inter-individual aggression and investigating the role of phylogenetic constraints in equine society. The Equidae are evidence of the relative importance of phylogeny and biological structure, and unimportance of the present-day environment, in animal behaviour and social and spatial organization.

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