Picked-On Marmots May Inherit Their Low Social Position

By Andrew Moseman | November 30, 2010 1:45 pm

marmotIn the rigid social universe of Revenge of the Nerds-style 1980s movies, jocks beget jocks beget jocks, and the bespectacled geeks they push around beget generations of the same. But could being a victim of social bullying actually be inherited? A new study of DISCOVER’s favorite rodent, the marmot, shows that at least in the animal kingdom, the answer can be yes.

Daniel Blumstein and colleagues tracked yellow-bellied marmots that make their home in the Colorado Rockies for a five year period, from 2003 to 2008. For their study out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team tracked the family relationships of the individual marmots, as well as who antagonized whom.

Marmots don’t have Facebook yet, but animals living among clusters of burrows in Colorado do interact enough for observers to plot networks with each marmot as a node. An exchange might be friendly, such as a marmot grooming a neighbor or settling down tranquilly nearby. Or a social interaction might go sour, with one marmot nipping or chasing another. “Marmots are grumpy with each other,” Blumstein says, but rarely cause serious injuries. [Science News]

When Blumstein’s team tallied all these social interactions and family relationships, they found the marmots that get bullied the most inherited that victimization. However, they found no genetic component to which marmots initiated cruel or benign social interactions.

What’s really interesting is that there appear to be advantages to being picked on—a reason, one could argue, that it might be genetically selected.

Well-connected marmots lived longer and reproduced more, even if their social connections put them on the receiving end of aggression. “Interacting with others is valuable, even if the interactions are nasty,” Blumstein says. [New Scientist]

For survival’s sake, it pays to stay with the group—even if the group isn’t very nice to you. So buck up, you majestic marmots.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: So, You Want To Be the Boss? The real secret to gaining power is… being nice.
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Image: Wikimedia Commons


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