Dominant meerkats render rivals infertile

Aug 08, 2006

When pregnant, dominant female meerkats subject their subordinates to escalating aggression and temporary eviction causing them to become overly stressed and as a result infertile, a new study finds.

The new research reports that during the latter half of her pregnancy, the dominant female in a meerkat group commonly drives her subordinate females from the group for an average of three weeks at a time.

Evicted subordinates, typically those with whom reproductive conflict is most likely (females of breeding age, older, and pregnant females), suffer repeated attacks and chases throughout this period, leading to dramatically increased levels of stress hormones and a collapse in fertility. This tactic reduces conception rates and increases abortion rates among the evicted subordinates, who are only allowed to return to the group after the dominant female has given birth.

The dominant female benefits in two ways from reducing the fertility of her subordinates. First, her own pups will benefit from not having to compete with additional pups born to a subordinate for the limited number of available caretakers. Second, because subordinate females actually kill other females’ pups when pregnant themselves, reducing subordinate female pregnancy rates will reduce the threat of infanticide.

Dr Andrew Young, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, who led the research said, “The findings are particularly exciting as the consensus emerging from prior research on cooperative species was that dominants don’t employ tactics of this kind. It’s not yet clear whether meerkats are just unusual in this regard, or whether stress-related suppression is actually a more widespread phenomenon in animal societies than was previously recognised”.

Dr Andrew Young’s research is part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, located at the Kuruman River Reserve, South Africa. The project is a decade-old initiative led by Professor Tim Clutton-Brock FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, in collaboration with the University of Pretoria. A study earlier this year by Dr Young and Professor Clutton-Brock reported that subordinate female meerkats, if they do become pregnant, kill the young of other female group members, dominants and subordinates alike.

The article, ‘Stress and the suppression of subordinate reproduction in cooperatively breeding meerkats’, appears in this week’s issue of PNAS.

Source: University of Cambridge

Explore further: Plant fertility—how hormones get around

Related Stories

Mountain gorilla mamas sidestep having inbred offspring

May 20, 2015

Some mountain gorilla females linger into adulthood in the group into which they were born. In the process they also remain in the company of their father, who is often their group's dominant male. To curb ...

Scent marking: The mammalian equivalent of showy plumage

Oct 31, 2013

The smell of urine may not strike people as pleasant, but female mice find it as attractive as cologne. Researchers at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna ...

Recommended for you

Plant fertility—how hormones get around

8 minutes ago

Researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology have identified a transporter protein at the heart of a number of plant processes associated with fertility and possibly aging.

New book promotes care for Earth's treasures

18 minutes ago

A new and comprehensive book on how to care for the world's great natural and cultural treasures protected in national parks, written by experts from around the globe, will be launched at The Australian National ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.