In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Territoriality

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of Territoriality
  • Territoriality in the Social Sciences
  • Quantifying Territory
  • Territory for Foraging
  • Territory for Mating: Beyond Birds
  • Territory for Mating: Critique Using the Case Study of Anolis Lizards
  • Territory for Foraging and Mating: Other Resources and Considerations
  • Acquiring and Establishing Territories
  • Phenotypic Correlates of Territoriality
  • Interspecific Territoriality

Ecology Territoriality
Ambika Kamath
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0230


Territoriality is a foundational concept in animal behavior and behavioral ecology. Territoriality is commonly defined as “the defense of an area,” wherein the area being defended is known as the “territory.” Territoriality serves as a framework that allows animal behaviorists and behavioral ecologists to describe and hypothesize links among diverse aspects of animals’ biology. The many facets and functions of territoriality include the acquisition of food, nest sites, and shelter, space-use and movement behavior, and interactions with mates and competitors. Thus, because territoriality encompasses behaviors that directly determine individuals’ survival and reproduction (i.e., their fitness), it offers a powerful approach to understanding the evolution of animal behavior. Territoriality has been used to describe animal behavior for many centuries, particularly in avian systems; conversely, many advances in how biologists conceive of and use territoriality have arisen in research on birds. Operational definitions of territory fall broadly into two categories—those that focus on animals’ behavior and those that focus on their ecological relationships. That said, the question of how to conceive of territory has long been a subject of contention, with widely varied opinions on how the term should be defined and whether and how it is useful for understanding animal behavior. Discussions and critiques of territoriality, from not only animal behavior and behavioral ecology but also from the social sciences, help to contextualize and sharpen how we use the concept to understand the evolution of animal behavior. Technological and statistical advances continue to change the ways in which territories are mapped and quantified, with different methods available for taxa of different sizes, habitats, and life histories. Research on territoriality can be divided into two large domains based on the function served by territory—foraging and mating—but these two functions are intimately linked through the socioecological hypothesis that proposes a relationship between resource distributions and mating systems. This hypothesis has served to structure much research on territoriality in the last half-century or so. Finally, territoriality is pertinent not just to within-species interactions but also to between-species interactions and species coexistence, with implications for macroecological and macroevolutionary patterns and processes.

Overviews of Territoriality

The study of animal territoriality began with and endures most strongly in birds, as summarized by Nice 1941 and Hinde 1956. But over the last century or so, the concept has been applied to many other animal taxa as well—for example, Owen-Smith 1977 focuses on territoriality in mammals, Stamps 1977 discusses the concept in reptiles, Roberts and Ormond 1992 focuses on fishes, and Baker 1983 reviews territoriality in insects. Carpenter 1958 reviews territoriality in birds, several types of mammals, and fishes, and Maher and Lott 2000 reviews intraspecific variation in territoriality across vertebrates. Many of the papers in this section discuss conceptual and operational definitions of territoriality; however, their primary focus is to acquaint the reader with territorial behavior in the taxa of interest.

  • Baker, R. Robin. 1983. Insect territoriality. Annual Review of Entomology 28:65–89.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.28.010183.000433

    An overview of territoriality in insects, often drawing clear and direct comparisons with more established examples of territoriality in birds and mammals. Insect territoriality is described as being primarily reproductive in function, and this review includes discussions of related concepts such as lekking, mate guarding, and sexual selection.

  • Carpenter, C. R. 1958. Territoriality: A review of concepts and problems. In Behavior and evolution. Edited by Anne Roe and George Gaylord Simpson, 224–250. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    A historical and conceptual overview of territoriality, including a discussion of how to define the term. The historical section covers studies published from 1622 to 1920. This overview focuses primarily on birds but also includes reviews of territoriality in fish and several mammalian taxa.

  • Hinde, Robert A. 1956. The biological significance of the territories of birds. Ibis 98:340–369.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.1956.tb01419.x

    This paper serves as an introduction to an issue of the ornithological journal Ibis that is devoted to territoriality and is thus not only an important collection of examples and references on bird territoriality but also provides a broader conceptual contextualization of territoriality itself. Much of the paper is devoted to considering the possible functions of territoriality, as well as the population-level consequences.

  • Maher, Christine R., and Dale F. Lott. 2000. A review of ecological determinants of territoriality within vertebrate species. American Midland Naturalist 143:1–29.

    DOI: 10.1674/0003-0031(2000)143[0001:AROEDO]2.0.CO;2

    A systematic review of intraspecific variation in vertebrate social organization, comparing ecological correlates of territorial and non-territorial populations. In addition to providing a useful general overview, this paper serves, as does Maher and Lott 1994 (see Conceptual Reviews and Commentary), as an example of how to write a critical synthetic review, emphasizing both the positives and negatives of particular papers as well as the field as a whole. Available by subscription online.

  • Nice, Margaret Morse. 1941. The role of territory in bird life. The American Midland Naturalist 26:441–487.

    DOI: 10.2307/2420732

    A compilation of historical and contemporary descriptions of territory in a diversity of bird species, followed by a classification of territories into types based on the variety of behaviors carried out in these spaces, a brief comparison to territoriality in other taxa, and a discussion of the functions of territoriality. Available online

  • Owen-Smith, Norman. 1977. On territoriality in ungulates and an evolutionary model. The Quarterly Review of Biology 52:1–38.

    DOI: 10.1086/409720

    A comprehensive review of territoriality in ungulates. Available online

  • Roberts, Callum M., and Rupert F. G. Ormond. 1992. Butterflyfish social behaviour, with special reference to the incidence of territoriality: a review. Environmental Biology of Fishes 34:79–93.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00004786

    A review of social behavior in butterflyfishes, illustrating the relationship of territoriality to diet. Available online

  • Stamps, Judy A. 1977. Social behavior and spacing patterns in lizards. In Biology of the reptilia, ecology and behaviour A. Vol. 7. Edited by Carl Gans and Donald W. Tinkle, 265–334. New York: Academic Press.

    A review of social and spatial behavior across lizards, highlighting the variation across taxa and including substantial discussion of territoriality.

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