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Long-term dominance relationships in female mountain gorillas: strength, stability and determinants of rank

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[A common practice in studies of social animals is to rank individuals according to dominance status, which has been shown to influence access to limited resources and stability of social relationships, and may in turn correlate with reproductive success. According to the socioecological model for primates, most female dominance relationships are either nepotistic or virtually undetectable (egalitarian), with nepotistic species being philopatric, and dispersing females being egalitarian. Female mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) disperse, and they have been characterized as being egalitarian, but previous studies have not examined their dominance relationships from a long-term perspective. We evaluated 15 matrices of displacement/supplantation interactions that spanned 30 years of observations in the Virunga Volcanoes region, and included 51 female mountain gorillas in six groups. Only 4% of displacements were directed against higher ranking females, and when matrices had less than 5% unknown dyads, linearity indices were consistently greater than 0.95. Therefore, previous results suggesting undetectable dominance relationships may have reflected an insufficient quantity of data for this species, rather than actual nonlinearity in its hierarchies. Dominance depended on age and group tenure rather than nepotism, yet some females maintained a high ranking for most of adulthood (15–25 years). Most rank shifts occurred through changes in group composition, rather than switches in established relationships. These results fit within growing evidence for linear individualistic hierarchies in some primates, often coupled with dispersal, as commonly found in ungulates. In light of these results, we propose that the dominance relationships of female mountain gorilla are best characterized as 'Dispersal-Individualistic' instead of the previously suggested 'Dispersal-Egalitarian'., A common practice in studies of social animals is to rank individuals according to dominance status, which has been shown to influence access to limited resources and stability of social relationships, and may in turn correlate with reproductive success. According to the socioecological model for primates, most female dominance relationships are either nepotistic or virtually undetectable (egalitarian), with nepotistic species being philopatric, and dispersing females being egalitarian. Female mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) disperse, and they have been characterized as being egalitarian, but previous studies have not examined their dominance relationships from a long-term perspective. We evaluated 15 matrices of displacement/supplantation interactions that spanned 30 years of observations in the Virunga Volcanoes region, and included 51 female mountain gorillas in six groups. Only 4% of displacements were directed against higher ranking females, and when matrices had less than 5% unknown dyads, linearity indices were consistently greater than 0.95. Therefore, previous results suggesting undetectable dominance relationships may have reflected an insufficient quantity of data for this species, rather than actual nonlinearity in its hierarchies. Dominance depended on age and group tenure rather than nepotism, yet some females maintained a high ranking for most of adulthood (15–25 years). Most rank shifts occurred through changes in group composition, rather than switches in established relationships. These results fit within growing evidence for linear individualistic hierarchies in some primates, often coupled with dispersal, as commonly found in ungulates. In light of these results, we propose that the dominance relationships of female mountain gorilla are best characterized as 'Dispersal-Individualistic' instead of the previously suggested 'Dispersal-Egalitarian'.]

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