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Am Nat. 2004 Aug;164(2):121-31.

Adaptive site selection rules and variation in group size of barn swallows: individual decisions predict population patterns.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA.


Variation in group size is ubiquitous among socially breeding organisms. An alternative to the traditional examination of average reproductive success in groups of different sizes is to examine individual decision making by determining the cues used for site selection. Once factors used for decision making are known, one can determine whether group-level patterns, such as group size variation, are emergent properties of individual-level decision rules. The advantage of this alternative approach is that it can explain the distribution of group sizes rather than just the occurrence of optimal group sizes. Using barn swallows, I tested, but did not support, the hypothesis that individuals settle at sites based on the previous success of conspecifics (i.e., performance-based conspecific attraction). Instead, I demonstrate that an adaptive site selection decision rule--to breed where it is possible to reuse previously constructed nests--predicts 83% of the variation in the number of breeding pairs at a site. Furthermore, experimental nest removals demonstrated that settlement decisions are also strongly influenced by site familiarity. I discuss the interaction of the cue-based site selection rule with the occurrence of site fidelity and how, more generally, a consideration of individual-level decision rules can improve our understanding of variation in many social behaviors.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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