Group living is thought to evolve whenever individuals attain a net fitness advantage due to reduced predation risk or enhanced foraging efficiency, but also when individuals are forced to remain in groups, which often occurs during high-density conditions due to limitations of critical resources for independent breeding. The influence of ecological limitations on sociality has been studied little in species in which reproduction is more evenly shared among group members. Previous studies in the caviomorph rodent Octodon degus (a New World hystricognath) revealed no evidence that group living confers an advantage and suggest that burrow limitations influence formation of social groups. Our objective was to examine the relevance of ecological limitations on sociality in these rodents. Our 4-year study revealed no association between degu density and use of burrow systems. The frequency with which burrow systems were used by degus was not related to the quality of these structures; only in 1 of the 4 years did the frequency of burrow use decrease with decreasing abundance of food. Neither the number of females per group nor total group size (related measures of degu sociality) changed with yearly density of degus. Although the number of males within social groups was lower in 2008, this variation was not related clearly to varying density. The percentage of females in social groups that bred was close to 99% and did not change across years of varying density. Our results suggest that sociality in degus is not the consequence of burrow limitations during breeding. Whether habitat limitations contribute to variation in vertebrate social systems is discussed.
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Vol. 92 • No. 1