Physiology modulates social flexibility and collective behaviour in equids and other large ungulates

Andrew S. Gersick, Daniel Ian Rubenstein

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Though morphologically very similar, equids across the extant species occupy ecological niches that are surprisingly non-overlapping. Occupancy of these distinct niches appears related to subtle physiological and behavioural adaptations which, in turn, correspond to significant differences in the social behaviours and emergent social systems characterizing the different species. Although instances of intraspecific behavioural variation in equids demonstrate that the same body plan can support a range of social structures, each of these morphologically similar species generally shows robust fidelity to its evolved social system. The pattern suggests a subtle relationship between physiological phenotypes and behavioural flexibility. While environmental conditions can vary widely within relatively short temporal or spatial scales, physiological changes and changes to the behaviours that regulate physiological processes, are constrained to longer cycles of adaptation. Physiology is then the limiting variable in the interaction between ecological variation and behavioural and socio-structural flexibility. Behavioural and socio-structural flexibility, in turn, will generate important feedbacks that will govern physiological function, thus creating a coupled web of interactions that can lead to changes in individual and collective behaviour. Longitudinal studies of equid and other large-bodied ungulate populations under environmental stress, such as those discussed here, may offer the best opportunities for researchers to examine, in real time, the interplay between individual behavioural plasticity, socio-structural flexibility, and the physiological and genetic changes that together produce adaptive change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20160241
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1727
StatePublished - Aug 19 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Behavioural flexibility
  • Equids
  • Grevy’s zebra
  • Plains zebra
  • Social network analysis
  • Socioecological model


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