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Stressed meerkats aren’t as helpful

Stressed female meerkats may be less willing to help their group, researchers report.

Specifically, dominant female meerkats using aggression to keep subordinates in their group from breeding may make those subordinates less inclined to cooperate to assist the group, researchers found.

A longstanding hypothesis proposes that subordinates stressed out by coercion or aggression 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.

meerkat mother and child
A mother and baby meerkat. (Credit: Ben Dantzer/U. Michigan)

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, says lead author Ben Dantzer, an 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.

Ben Dantzer and a meerkat
Ben Dantzer and meerkat. (Credit: Ben Dantzer/U. Michigan)

Over the past 19 years, study coauthors Tim Clutton-Brock of the University of Cambridge and Marta Manser of the 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 dominant females.

“For a dominant female meerkat, 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 behavior of subordinates,” Dantzer says.

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The research appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B.

Additional coauthors of the study are from the University of Zurich, the Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa, the University of Pretoria, the German Primate Center in Germany, and the University of Cambridge.

Source: University of Michigan

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