Stressed-out meerkats less likely to help group

September 22, 2017 by Jared Wadley, University of Michigan
A mother and baby meerkat. Credit: Ben Dantzer

Dominant female meerkats use aggression to keep subordinates from breeding, but a new study finds this negative behavior also can result in the latter becoming less willing to help within the group.

A longstanding hypothesis proposes that subordinates stressed out by coercion or from the socially dominant breeders can cause them to be unable to reproduce on their own. However, in cooperatively breeding mammals in which dominant breeders produce all or most of the offspring, the aggressive behavior may backfire: Subordinates that are stressed may also exhibit less helping behavior.

Subordinates typically help raise pups by guarding and feeding them, and alerting pups and other group members about predators

By studying the behavior of meerkats, which live in groups with up to 50 individuals, researchers learn more about the social cooperation among other species, such as humans, said the study's lead author Ben Dantzer, assistant professor of psychology and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan.

While stressed subordinate female meerkats become less cooperative, the findings differed for male meerkats who actually exhibited more cooperative behavior when stressed.

Dantzer and colleagues examined how manipulations of stress affect hormone levels in subordinate Kalahari meerkats in South Africa.

Credit: University of Michigan

Over the past 19 years, study co-authors Tim Clutton-Brock (University of Cambridge) and Marta Manser (University of Zurich) have compiled meerkat behavioral data by tracking the animals, which were marked with dye to be easily identified. The researchers visited the meerkat groups frequently throughout the year to record the amount of helping behavior that subordinates exhibited toward offspring, as well as how much aggression they received from .

Ben Dantzer and meerkat. Credit: Ben Dantzer
"For a dominant female , stressing the subordinates may suppress their reproduction—as previous studies have shown—but we show that it may also carry costs by suppressing the cooperative/helping of subordinates," Dantzer said.

The findings appear in Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B.

Explore further: Dominant meerkats render rivals infertile

More information: Ben Dantzer et al. The influence of stress hormones and aggression on cooperative behaviour in subordinate meerkats, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1248

Related Stories

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.

Sexual Selection Not Just for Males Anymore

January 10, 2007

The antlers of a bull elk, the great bulk of a male elephant seal, the lion’s mane, have all evolved due to competition for reproductive success. These products of “sexual selection” are typically found in male animals. ...

Female meerkats compete to outgrow their sisters

May 25, 2016

Meerkats live in groups of up to 50 individuals, yet a single dominant pair will almost completely monopolise reproduction, while subordinates help to raise offspring through feeding and babysitting. Since only a small minority ...

Infanticide linked to wet-nursing in meerkats

October 7, 2013

Subordinate female meerkats who try to breed often lose their offspring to infanticide by the dominant female or are evicted from the group. These recently bereaved or ostracised mothers may then become wet-nurses for the ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

Paleontologists report world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex

March 22, 2019

University of Alberta paleontologists have just reported the world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex and the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Canada. The 13-metre-long T. rex, nicknamed "Scotty," lived in prehistoric Saskatchewan ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2017
This kind of Research takes Humanity NO WHERE.
Can you make KING COBRAS Without Poison Glands, WITH GENE-EDITING ?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2017
This is essential research for humanity, more please. We can understand what aggressive queen bee female behavior is bad to humanity progress and evolutionary path.

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.