Bats are able to maintain long-term social relationships despite the high fission-fusion dynamics of their groups.

Authors: Gerald Kerth, Nicolas Perony and Frank Schweitzer

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2011)


Elephants, dolphins, as well as some carnivores and primates maintain social links despite their frequent splitting and merging in groups of variable composition, a phenomenon known as fission-fusion. Information on the dynamics of social links and interactions among individuals is of high importance to the understanding of the evolution of animal sociality, including that of humans. However, detailed long-term data on such dynamics in wild mammals with fully known demography and kin structures are scarce. Applying a weighted network analysis on 20 500 individual roosting observations over 5 years, we show that in two wild Bechstein's bat colonies with high fission-fusion dynamics, individuals of different age, size, reproductive status and relatedness maintain long-term social relationships. In the larger colony, we detected two stable subunits, each comprising bats from several family lineages. Links between these subunits were mainly maintained by older bats and persisted over all years. Moreover, we show that the full details of the social structure become apparent only when large datasets are used. The stable multi-level social structures in Bechstein's bat colonies resemble that of elephants, dolphins and some primates. Our findings thus may shed new light on the link between social complexity and social cognition in mammals.