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Territory (animal)

In ethology, territory is the sociographical area that an animal of a particular species consistently defends against conspecifics (or, occasionally, animals of other species). Animals that defend territories in this way are referred to as territorial.

Territoriality is only shown by a minority of species. More commonly, an individual or a group of animals has an area that it habitually uses but does not necessarily defend; this is called the home range. The home ranges of different groups of animals often overlap, or in the overlap areas, the groups tend to avoid each other rather than seeking to expel each other. Within the home range there may be a core area that no other individual group uses, but, again, this is as a result of avoidance.

The ultimate function of animals inhabiting and defending a territory is to increase the individual fitness or inclusive fitness of the animals expressing the behaviour. Fitness in this biological sense relates to the ability of an animal to survive and raise young. The proximate functions of territory defense vary. For some animals, the reason for such protective behaviour is to acquire and protect food sources, nesting sites, mating areas, or to attract a mate.

Territories have been classified as six types.

Reports of territory size can be confused by a lack of distinction between home range and the defended territory. The size and shape of a territory can vary according to its purpose, season, the amount and quality of resources it contains, or the geography. The size is usually a compromise of resource needs, defense costs, predation pressure and reproductive needs.

Some species of squirrels may claim as much as 10 hectares of territory. For European badgers, a home range may be as small as 30 hectares in a good rural habitat, but as large as 300 hectares in a poor habitat. On average, a territory may be approximately 50 hectares, with main setts normally at least 500 metres apart. In urban areas, territories can be as small as 5 hectares, if they can obtain enough food from bird tables, food waste or artificial feeding in suburban gardens.Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) have highly variable territory sizes, ranging from less than 4,000 hectares in the Ngorongoro Crater to over 100,000 hectares in the Kalahari.

  • Type A: An 'all-purpose territory' in which all activities occur, e.g. courtship, mating, nesting and foraging. Common in songbirds.
  • Type B: A mating and nesting territory in which all breeding activities occur, but most foraging occurs elsewhere.
  • Type C: A nesting territory which includes the nest plus a small area around it. Common in colonial waterbirds.
  • Type D: A pairing and mating territory. The type of territory defended by males in lekking species.
  • Type E: Roosting territory.
  • Type F: Winter territory which typically includes foraging areas and roost sites. May be equivalent (in terms of location) to the Type A territory, or for a migratory species, may be on the wintering grounds.
  • Walther, F. R., E. C. Mungall, G. A. Grau. (1983) Gazelles and their relatives¬†: a study in territorial behavior Park Ridge, N.J.¬†: Noyes Publications 239,
  • Stokes, A. W. (editor) (1974) Territory Stroudsburg, Pa., Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross 398,
  • Klopfer, P. H. (1969) Habitats and territories; a study of the use of space by animals New York, Basic Books 117 p.


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