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Anim Behav. 2000 Apr;59(4):677-688.

To nest communally or not to nest communally: a review of rodent communal nesting and nursing.

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Department of Zoology and the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Program, Michigan State University


Communal nesting, the sharing of parental responsibilities between multiple individuals in a nest, is common in many rodents. Upon first glance, this behaviour seems to be selectively disadvantageous. Communal care not only involves energetic costs, but may also be subject to cheating behaviour. Despite abundant literature, many questions remain regarding advantages gained by females that form nesting groups. I discuss the communal nesting of eusocial, singular and plural breeding rodents. I first clarify the distinction between communal nesting and thermoregulatory huddling. I then review two major groups of hypotheses ('ecological constraints' and 'benefits of philopatry') that are used to explain the occurrence of communal nesting in rodents. Most likely, these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Regardless of the main selective pressure(s) acting on communal nesting, the indirect components of inclusive fitness that result from nest sharing most likely influence the formation and maintenance of communal nests. Communal nesting and nursing (the sharing of milk with nonoffspring) are under different selective regimes and thus, must be evaluated separately. I review adaptive and nonadaptive hypotheses for rodent communal nursing. I argue that communal nursing may not be adaptive as mothers may be forced to share milk with nonoffspring in large communal nests (i.e. communal nursing may be a cost associated with communal nesting). In conclusion, I propose directions for future study that may improve our understanding of communal nesting and nursing in the wild. Copyright 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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