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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2013

14 - Contest behaviour in ungulates



This chapter reviews our current understanding of ungulate contest behaviour. Before proceeding to the meat and bones we offer a caveat: following Yeats’ question as to whether we can separate the dancer from the dance, we recognise that no single aggressive action employed by a contestant can be considered independent of all other actions. Nevertheless, for reasons of structure and economy we have presented an overview of the competitive process by portraying contests more as parts of their sum rather than vice versa. The reader should keep this in mind when considering the various sections on display behaviour, contest structure, assessment processes and opponent choice. Many ungulates vocalise and appear to show their body and weapon size to opponents during contests, and so we begin with a review of how ungulates communicate their competitive ability prior to physical confrontation. Following this, we consider factors that might affect how ungulates structure their fights: do body size, resource availability and the level of familiarity between opponents influence contest duration? What assessment processes might be driving the willingness of a competitor to engage in a fight and how might this influence contest structure and subsequent outcome? We conclude with a review of the literature concerning what factors might be involved in mediating the decision for one individual to escalate an interaction with a particular group member to fighting.


Ungulates comprise approximately 257 species classified broadly within two different orders, the even-toed (order Artiodactyla) and uneven-toed (order Perissodactyla) ungulates. They represent the majority of large herbivores and, with the exception of the Antarctic, are currently resident in all continental regions. The numerous and diverse members of these orders and their wide geographic distribution is reflected in a complex range of social systems that extend from monogamous pair bonds to a variety of large group polygamous breeding systems. Despite the range and complexity of ungulate societies, competition to secure or defend access to resources is a common feature.

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