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Proc Biol Sci. 2007 Feb 22;274(1609):513-20.

Helpers increase the reproductive potential of offspring in cooperative meerkats.

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  • 1Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK.


In both animal and human societies, individuals may forego personal reproduction and provide care to the offspring of others. Studies aimed at investigating the adaptive nature of such cooperative breeding systems in vertebrates typically calculate helper 'fitness' from relationships of helper numbers and offspring survival to independence. The aim of this study is to use observations and supplemental feeding experiments in cooperatively breeding meerkats, Suricata suricatta, to investigate whether helpers influence the long-term reproductive potential of offspring during adulthood. We show that helpers have a significant and positive influence on the probability that offspring gain direct reproductive success in their lifetimes. This effect arises because helpers both reduce the age at which offspring begin to reproduce as subordinates and increase the probability that they will compete successfully for alpha rank. Supplemental feeding experiments confirm the causality of these results. Our results suggest that one can neither discount the significance of helper effects when none is found nor necessarily estimate accurately the fitness benefit that helpers accrue, unless their effects on offspring are considered in the long term.

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