Anticipated effects of abiotic environmental change on intraspecific social interactions

David N. Fisher* (Corresponding Author), R. Julia Kilgour, Erin R. Siracusa, Jennifer R. Foote, Elizabeth A. Hobson, Pierre-Olivier Montiglio, Julia B. Saltz, Tina W Wey, Eric W. Wice

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
13 Downloads (Pure)


Social interactions are ubiquitous across the animal kingdom. A variety of ecological and evolutionary processes are dependent on social interactions, such as movement, disease spread, information transmission, and density-dependent reproduction and survival. Social interactions, like any behaviour, are context dependent, varying with environmental conditions. Currently, environments are changing rapidly across multiple dimensions, becoming warmer and more variable, while habitats are increasingly fragmented and contaminated with pollutants. Social interactions are expected to change in response to these
stressors and to continue to change into the future. However, a comprehensive understanding of the form and magnitude of the effects of these environmental changes on social interactions is currently lacking. Focusing on four major forms of rapid environmental change currently occurring, we review how these changing environmental gradients are expected to have immediate effects on social interactions such as communication, agonistic behaviours, and group formation, which will thereby induce changes in social organisation including mating systems, dominance hierarchies, and collective behaviour. Our review
covers intraspecific variation in social interactions across environments, including studies in both the wild and in laboratory settings, and across a range of taxa. The expected responses of social behaviour to environmental change are diverse, but we identify several general themes. First, very dry, variable, fragmented, or polluted environments are likely to destabilise existing social systems. This occurs as these conditions limit the energy available for complex social interactions and affect dissimilar phenotypes differently. Second, a given
environmental change can lead to opposite responses in social behaviour, and the direction of the response often hinges on the natural history of the organism in question. Third, our review highlights the fact that changes in environmental factors are not occurring in isolation: multiple factors are changing simultaneously, which may have antagonistic or synergistic effects, and more work should be done to understand these combined effects. We close by identifying methodological and analytical techniques that might help to study the response of social interactions to changing environments, highlight consistent patterns among taxa, and predict subsequent evolutionary change. We expect that the changes in social interactions that we document here will have consequences for individuals, groups, and for the ecology and evolution of populations, and therefore warrant a central place in the study of animal populations, particularly in an era of rapid environmental change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2661-2693
Number of pages33
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number6
Early online date2 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021


  • climate change
  • communication
  • dominance
  • environmental variation
  • habitat fragmentation
  • mating systems
  • pollution
  • social interactions
  • social network


Dive into the research topics of 'Anticipated effects of abiotic environmental change on intraspecific social interactions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this