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Ecology and Evolution of Social Complexity in Lizards

Evolutionary Biology
When we think of social animals our thoughts may go to ants, meerkats, or humans. In contrast, the social life of lizards may seem dull. Not so. Some lizards live in social groups that differ in size and complexity in fascinating ways. Together with Geoff While at the University of Tasmania we study links between behavior and social structure in a group of lizards known as the Egernia.

Four brown lizards are sun bathing on a rock.

Our main study species lives in family groups. Geoff has shown that the composition and stability of these groups are dictated by both the genetic structure of the population and the ecological conditions. Together these factors shape selection on a suite of characters that are important for understanding the transition to social life.

While family life remains simple in lizards, there are more evolutionary transitions to family groups in lizards than in birds and mammals. Even within the Egernia, species differ in their social systems, ranging from solitary species to those that live in large groups with several overlapping generations. This makes it possible to reconstruct the steps towards social complexity, unravelling how social systems originate and are maintained. Across lizards and snakes, it turns out that live bearing facilitates transitions to sociality, presumably because it promotes interactions between close relatives.

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Tobias Uller

If you want to know more

Halliwell, B., Uller, T., Holland, B.R. & While, G.M. 2017. Live bearing promotes the evolution of sociality in reptiles. Nature Communications 2030

While, G.M., Chapple, D.G., Gardner, M.G., Uller, T. & Whiting, M.J. 2015. Egernia lizards. Current Biology 25:R593-595

While, G.M., Uller, T., Bordogna, G. & Wapstra, E. 2014. Promiscuity resolves constraints imposed by population viscosity. Molecular Ecology 23: 721-732