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Social aggregation is a common behavioral phenomenon thought to evolve through adaptive benefits to group living. Comparing fitness differences between aggregated and solitary individuals in nature – necessary to infer an evolutionary benefit to living in groups – has proven difficult because communally-living species tend to be obligately social and behaviorally complex. However, these differences and the mechanisms driving them are critical to understanding how solitary individuals transition to group living, as well as how and why nascent social systems change over time. Here we demonstrate that facultative aggregation in a reptile (the Desert Night Lizard, Xantusia vigilis) confers direct reproductive success and survival advantages and that thermal benefits of winter huddling disproportionately benefit small juveniles, which can favor delayed dispersal of offspring and the formation of kin groups. Using climate projection models, however, we estimate that future aggregation in night lizards could decline more than 50% due to warmer temperatures. Our results support the theory that transitions to group living arise from direct benefits to social individuals and offer a clear mechanism for the origin of kin groups through juvenile philopatry. The temperature dependence of aggregation in this and other taxa suggests that environmental variation may be a powerful but underappreciated force in the rapid transition between social and solitary behavior.


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