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© 2015 The Zoological Society of London. Virtually nothing in nature is uniform. Observed at the right scale, most entities are clustered rather than evenly distributed, spatially and temporally, and this applies across domains from the distribution of matter in the universe, to habitats across the Earth's surface, and to energy in the landscape. Patchiness means organisms cannot carve out even territories. Instead, their shape and size depends on the dispersion of materials needed for survival and reproduction. This fundamental feature of life is intrinsically understood in ecology, for example, in the ideal free distribution and optimal foraging theory, and is represented in the anatomy as well as behaviour of organisms via the structures and strategies for moving, finding and capturing these patchy resources. But perhaps most striking of all is the role of patchiness in facilitating the formation of social groups - of societies. The resource dispersion hypothesis (RDH) suggests that where resources are dispersed and rich enough, multiple individuals can collapse into groups that share the same space at little cost to each other. Cooperation may be absent, but sociality is favoured nevertheless. Thirty years after the origin of the hypothesis, we review the accumulating models, critiques, evidence and experiments, concluding that RDH is a pervasive feature of animal spacing patterns across a wide range of species, taxonomic groups and ecosystems. In the spirit of the original objective of the Huxley Reviews to 'suggest and inspire research that will improve our knowledge in the future', we also take the opportunity to consider wider implications of the RDH. If we live and evolved on a patchwork planet, then we should expect broader effects. Indeed, we suggest that the RDH has played an important role in the evolution of cooperation, biodiversity, behaviour and, not least, in the social organization of humans in our evolutionary past and today.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Zoology

Publication Date





75 - 107