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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Mar 7;273(1586):571-7.

Cortisol levels are positively associated with pup-feeding rates in male meerkats.

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Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.


In societies of cooperative vertebrates, individual differences in contributions to offspring care are commonly substantial. Recent attempts to explain the causes of this variation have focused on correlations between contributions to care and the protein hormone prolactin, or the steroid hormone testosterone. However, such studies have seldom considered the importance of other hormones or controlled for non-hormonal factors that are correlative with both individual hormone levels and contributions to care. Using multivariate statistics, we show that hormone levels explain significant variation in contributions to pup-feeding by male meerkats, even after controlling for non-hormonal effects. However, long-term contributions to pup provisioning were significantly and positively correlated with plasma levels of cortisol rather than prolactin, while plasma levels of testosterone were not related to individual patterns of pup-feeding. Furthermore, a playback experiment that used pup begging calls to increase the feeding rates of male helpers gave rise to parallel increases in plasma cortisol levels, whilst prolactin and testosterone levels remained unchanged. Our findings confirm that hormones can explain significant amounts of variation in contributions to offspring feeding, and that cortisol, not prolactin, is the hormone most strongly associated with pup-feeding in cooperative male meerkats.

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