Group size increases inequality in cooperative behaviour

Shay Rotics*, Tim Clutton-Brock

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In cooperatively breeding species where rearing effort is shared among multiple group members, increases in group size typically reduce average per capita contributions to offspring care by all group members (load-lightening) but it is not known how changes in group size affect the distribution of workload among group members. The socioeconomic collective action theory suggests that, in larger groups, the incentives for free riding are stronger, leading to greater inequalities in work division among group members. Here, we use the Gini index to measure inequality at the group level in the contributions of helpers to three different cooperative behaviours (babysitting, pup-provisioning and raised guarding) in groups of varying size in wild Kalahari meerkats (Suricata suricatta). In larger groups, inequality in helpers' contributions to cooperative activities and the frequency of free riding both increased. Elevated levels of inequality were generated partly as a result of increased differences in contributions to cooperative activities between helpers in different sex and age categories in larger groups. After controlling for the positive effect of group size on total provisioning, increasing levels of inequality in contributions were associated with reductions in total pup-provisioning conducted by the group. Reductions in total pup-provisioning were, in turn, associated with reductions in the growth and survival of pups (but pup growth and survival were not directly affected by inequality in provisioning). Our results support the prediction of collective action theory described above and show how the Gini index can be used to investigate the distribution of cooperative behaviour within the group.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20202104
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1945
StatePublished - 24 Feb 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • animal cooperation
  • cooperative breeding
  • free riding
  • group size
  • inequality
  • meerkat


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