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Biol Lett. 2006 Sep 22;2(3):385-7.

Infanticide by subordinates influences reproductive sharing in cooperatively breeding meerkats.

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Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.


In cooperative animal societies, dominant females typically show higher breeding success than subordinates, and are commonly believed to control the extent of reproductive sharing. However, studies of social insect societies reveal that subordinates too can interfere with the breeding attempts of others, with important implications for the distribution of fitness within colonies. Here, we show that subordinate females in a high-skew vertebrate (the meerkat, Suricata suricatta), also exert a substantial influence over the reproductive attempts of others. In meerkat societies, pregnant dominants are known to kill subordinate litters, but we show that pregnant subordinates also kill pups; not only those of other subordinates but the dominant's as well. Litters born to females of any rank were half as likely to survive their first 4 days if a subordinate was pregnant. However, dominant females were more likely than subordinates to give birth when no other females were pregnant, and so lost fewer litters to infanticide than subordinates. This is probably due in part to dominants employing counter-tactics to reduce the incidence of subordinate pregnancy. We discuss the broad implications of subordinates having a degree of control over reproductive sharing for future attempts to understand the distribution of reproduction in animal societies.

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