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Social relationships are fundamental to animals living in complex societies. The extent to which individuals base their decisions around their key social relationships, and the consequences this has on their behavior and broader population level processes, remains unknown. Using a novel experiment that controlled where individual wild birds (great tits, Parus major) could access food, we restricted mated pairs from being allowed to forage at the same locations. This introduced a conflict for pair members between maintaining social relationships and accessing resources. We show that individuals reduce their own access to food in order to sustain their relationships and that individual foraging activity was strongly influenced by their key social counterparts. By affecting where individuals go, social relationships determined which conspecifics they encountered and consequently shaped their other social associations. Hence, while resource distribution can determine individuals' spatial and social environment, we illustrate how key social relationships themselves can govern broader social structure. Finally, social relationships also influenced the development of social foraging strategies. In response to forgoing access to resources, maintaining pair bonds led individuals to develop a flexible "scrounging" strategy, particularly by scrounging from their pair mate. This suggests that behavioral plasticity can develop to ameliorate conflicts between social relationships and other demands. Together, these results illustrate the importance of considering social relationships for explaining behavioral variation due to their significant impact on individual behavior and demonstrate the consequences of key relationships for wider processes.

Original publication




Journal article


Curr Biol

Publication Date





3138 - 3143


Animals, Conflict (Psychology), Feeding Behavior, Social Behavior, Songbirds