A simple behavioral model predicts the emergence of complex animal hierarchies

Takao Sasaki, Clint Penick, Zachary Shaffer, Kevin L. Haight, Stephen Pratt, Juergen Liebig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Social dominance hierarchies are widespread, but little is known about the mechanisms that produce nonlinear structures. In addition to despotic hierarchies, where a single individual dominates, shared hierarchies exist, where multiple individuals occupy a single rank. In vertebrates, these complex dominance relationships are thought to develop from interactions that require higher cognition, but similar cases of shared dominance have been found in social insects. Combining empirical observations with a modeling approach, we show that all three hierarchy structures—linear, despotic, and shared—can emerge from different combinations of simple interactions present in social insects. Our model shows that a linear hierarchy emerges when a typical winner‐loser interaction (dominance biting) is present. A despotic hierarchy emerges when a policing interaction is added that results in the complete loss of dominance status for an attacked individual (physical policing). Finally, a shared hierarchy emerges with the addition of a winner‐winner interaction that results in a positive outcome for both interactors (antennal dueling). Antennal dueling is an enigmatic ant behavior that has previously lacked a functional explanation. These results show how complex social traits can emerge from simple behaviors without requiring advanced cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)765-775
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2016


  • Agent‐based model
  • Dominance hierarchy
  • Policing
  • Reproductive conflict
  • Social insects
  • Winner‐loser effect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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