Family feuds -- why close relatives keep their distance in the animal kingdom

May 28, 2008
Family feuds -- why close relatives keep their distance in the animal kingdom
Datasets showed that closely related species of prairie dogs did not live together

Mammals cannot share their habitat with closely related species because the need for the same kind of food and shelter would lead them to compete to the death, according to new research out today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The team behind the study says this is important because the retreat of natural habitats like rainforests caused by habitat destruction and climate change could inadvertently force closely-related species to live closer together than before.

Lead author of the study Natalie Cooper, a postgraduate student in Imperial College London’s Department of Life Sciences, explains: “Mammal species that share a recent common ancestor have similar needs in terms of food and other resources. Our study shows that this has naturally resulted in closely related species keeping their distance from each other in the wild. Without this separation, one species outcompetes the other.

“The danger is that if mankind’s reduction of natural habitats throws these close relatives together in small geographical areas they could struggle to survive.”

The new research focused on communities of three different types of mammals: new world monkeys (including marmosets, tamarins and spider monkeys), possums, and ground squirrels (including marmots, prairie dogs and chipmunks).

Ms Cooper and her colleagues compared data from a ‘family tree’ showing the evolution of all mammal species on the planet, with checklists of which mammal species are found where. They discovered that in the case of these monkeys, squirrels and possums, close evolutionary relatives do not tend to live in communities with one another.

For example, in Badlands National Park, South Dakota USA, four species of ground squirrel, including the black tailed prairie dog, live alongside each other and other distantly related squirrels in a community. However, Gunnison’s prairie dog, a close relative of the black-tailed species, was notably absent from the community, although data showed it lived within just 10km of the National Park and in very similar habitats.

This idea that closely related species would be unlikely to be found together because they compete ferociously was first put forward by Charles Darwin in 1859. This study provides the most evidence so far for Darwin’s prediction, thanks to the new complete ‘family tree’ for mammals, developed by Imperial biologists last year, and new comprehensive data on the location and make-up of different mammal communities worldwide.

The research team hope that their findings could help conservationists have a better understanding of the possible problems that mammal species could encounter if their habitats are depleted and they are forced to live in close proximity to their close evolutionary relatives.

Source: Imperial College London

Explore further: Theoretical analysis could expand applications of accelerated searching in biology, other fields

Related Stories

Earliest baboon found at Malapa

August 19, 2015

A team from Wits University's Evolutionary Studies Institute has discovered a fossil monkey specimen representing the earliest baboon ever found.

Timing is everything – for plants too

August 18, 2015

Organisms differ in their morphology between species, within species and even within individuals at different stages of development. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne, Germany, ...

The Tree of Life may be a bush

August 18, 2015

New species evolve whenever a lineage splits off into several. Because of this, the kinship between species is often described in terms of a 'tree of life", where every branch constitutes a species. Now, researchers at Uppsala ...

Recommended for you

Chemists solve major piece of cellular mystery

August 27, 2015

Not just anything is allowed to enter the nucleus, the heart of eukaryotic cells where, among other things, genetic information is stored. A double membrane, called the nuclear envelope, serves as a wall, protecting the contents ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.