Natal philopatry, or delayed dispersal of sexually mature offspring, may be due to ecological constraints on dispersal. In this study, we manipulated the population density of prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) living in experimental outdoor enclosures to test a prediction from the habitat saturation hypothesis that philopatry and subsequent group formation in this cooperatively breeding mammal is affected by the availability of suitable territories. We detected a significant, positive relationship between the proportion of offspring remaining philopatric and density, with females being more philopatric than males at all densities. This increase in philopatry led to a significant increase in the proportion of social units that were groups as well as a significant increase in group size. These results provide the strongest evidence of a causal effect of density on dispersal and group formation in a mammal. Our findings suggest that habitat saturation is at least a partial explanation for philopatry in prairie voles. However, we cannot eliminate the possibility that other variables, such as benefits accrued from remaining philopatric, may also be factors contributing to philopatry. Nonetheless, these results show that changes in ecological conditions can influence social structure within a population, leading to group formation and a social milieu conducive to the evolution of cooperative breeding.
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