National Park Service



Date of this Version



Ecology, 101(2), 2020, e02927


U.S. Government Works are not subject to copyright.


Understanding the drivers of animal distributions is a fundamental goal of ecology and informs habitat management. The costs and benefits of colonial aggregations in animals are well established, but the factors leading to aggregation in territorial animals remain unclear. Territorial animals might aggregate to facilitate social behavior such as (1) group defense from predators and/or parasites, (2) cooperative care of offspring, (3) extra-pair mating, and/or (4) mitigating costs of extra-pair mating through kin selection. Using experimental and observational methods, we tested predictions of all four hypotheses in a tallgrass prairie in northeast Kansas, United States. Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) males formed clumps of territories in some parts of the site while leaving other apparently suitable areas unoccupied. Despite substantial sampling effort (653 territories and 223 nests), we found no support for any hypothesized social driver of aggregation, nor evidence that aggregation increases nest success. Our results run counter to previous evidence that conspecific interactions shape territory distributions. These results suggest one of the following alternatives: (1) the benefits of aggregation accrue to different life-history stages, or (2) the benefits of territory aggregation may be too small to detect in short-term studies and/or the consequences of aggregation are sufficiently temporally and spatially variable that they do not always appear to be locally adaptive, perhaps exacerbated by changing landscape contexts and declining population sizes.