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The Evolution of Competitiveness

Oct 29, 2014 02:58 PM EDT

Scientists behind a theoretical study explain the evolution of competiveness, in which some animals are cutthroat and highly aggressive while others are shy and content standing by the wayside.

Virtually all organisms live in a world where they have to compete with members of their own species, often for food resources. However, over the course of evolution, individuals have differed strongly in how much they invest into their competitive ability. Some individuals are highly competitive and eager to get access to high-quality resources, while others seem to avoid competition, instead making prudent use of the lower-quality resources that are left over for them.

These findings don't necessarily indicate how competitiveness works among humans, but it does shed light on the trait in animals, and how investing in some healthy competition can have its setbacks.

"In many organisms, some individuals invest a lot into being successful in the competition with their conspecifics," Sebastian Baldauf from the University of Bonn, first author of the study, said in a statement.

"They grow, for example, weaponry like horns or antlers and do hardly feed in order to be able to conquer and defend large territories," he added. "This may secure them many matings, but they might get more fitness out of each mating when they would spend their energy on other activities, like paternal care."

To analyze the diversity of competitiveness, a team of researchers from Germany and the Netherlands developed a model that reflects the idea that competitiveness comes at a price.

Those with the highest competitive ability, while they may be able to confidently challenge another member of their species and gain access to the best resources, may not be able to maximize the use of those resources. If this is so, then other less competitive individuals may be comfortable not investing into competition at all and instead spend their time mating and maximizing the lower-quality resources they're left with. This way, both types can peacefully coexist.

However, there does come a point when there is such a thing as too much friendly fighting, according to the study.

"In stressful times, like periods of food shortage, this process can even lead to population extinction, since the investment in competition exceeds the value of the resources," explained co-author Leif Engqvist.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

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