Santa Fe Institute

Migrate or cooperate? SFI working group tackles evolutionary fork-in-the-road

June 29, 2016 11:22 a.m.

Life has evolved not just to survive, but to utilize limited resources in doing so. Migrating to avoid competition or staying close to home and cooperating is one notable, resource-related evolutionary fork in the road.

Amid growing interest in these two strategies, a small group of researchers is looking further ahead to understand how the strategies might have co-evolved and in what situations one strategy wins out over the other.

“We know migration and cooperation are linked, and we understand very well that general link,” says Jeremy Van Cleve, who with SFI Omidyar Fellow Eric Libby and SFI External Professor Michael Hochberg organized this week's SFI working group on the subject. “What [we] are attacking more specifically is the role of other factors shaping patterns of migration, which we know will then have an effect on patterns of costly helping” – that is, cooperation and altruism, he says.

One way for a species to deal with scarce resources is to migrate, says Van Cleve, a former SFI Omidyar Fellow now at the University of Kentucky. By spreading out over a wider area, families avoid fighting over food and other resources, raising the likelihood they’ll pass their genes on to the next generation.

Cooperation rarely evolves in that case – there’s no evolutionary gain. But when the rate of migration is low, individuals live near their relatives and cooperative strategies do evolve. Most ants in a colony, for example, are sterile daughters of a queen ant; the daughters help the queen by raising their sisters while the queen is responsible for reproduction.

Why do some species migrate and others cooperate? This is where the role of environmental heterogeneity might come in, says Van Cleve: “Does heterogeneity help us understand when migration might evolve to be low or high, and in turn how costly helping might evolve?”

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