Dominant meerkats render rivals infertile

August 8, 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: High stress during pregnancy decreases offspring survival, mongoose study shows

Related Stories

Orangutan females prefer dominant, cheek-padded males

September 1, 2015

Unlike most mammals, mature male orangutans exhibit different facial characteristics: some develop large "cheek pads" on their faces; other males do not. A team of researchers studied the difference in reproductive success ...

Scent marking: The mammalian equivalent of showy plumage

October 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 have confirmed ...

Bosses exaggerate women's family-work conflict

November 18, 2009

( -- Decades into the era of two-earner households, the virtues of family-friendly policies are all but universally assumed in the corporate world. But now new research suggests serious potential pitfalls for ...

Subordinate animals as guinea pigs

February 19, 2013

Subordinate animals must face higher risks than dominant ones Dominant meerkat females yield to their subaltern group members when faced with a dangerous obstacle: as a group of these animals reaches a road, a "guinea pig" ...

Recommended for you

Exploring the physics of a chocolate fountain

November 24, 2015

A mathematics student has worked out the secrets of how chocolate behaves in a chocolate fountain, answering the age-old question of why the falling 'curtain' of chocolate surprisingly pulls inwards rather than going straight ...


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.