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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Feb 7;276(1656):389-99. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1374.

Reproductive skew in female common marmosets: what can proximate mechanisms tell us about ultimate causes?

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Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, USA.


Common marmosets are cooperatively breeding monkeys that exhibit high reproductive skew: most subordinate females fail to reproduce, while others attempt to breed but produce very few surviving infants. An extensive dataset on the mechanisms limiting reproduction in laboratory-housed and free living subordinate females provides unique insights into the causes of reproductive skew. Non-breeding adult females undergo suppression of ovulation and inhibition of sexual behaviour; however, they receive little or no aggression or mating interference by dominants and do not exhibit behavioural or physiological signs of stress. Breeding subordinate females receive comparable amounts of aggression to non-breeding females but are able to conceive, gestate and lactate normally. In groups containing two breeding females,however, both dominant and subordinate breeders kill one another's infants. These findings suggest that preconception reproductive suppression is not imposed on subordinate females by dominants, at a proximate level, but is instead self-imposed by most subordinates, consistent with restraint models of reproductive skew. In contrast to restraint models, however, this self-suppression probably evolved not in response to the threat of eviction by dominant females but in response to the threat of infanticide. Thus,reproductive skew in this species appears to be generated predominantly by subordinate self-restraint, in a proximate sense, but ultimately by dominant control over subordinates' reproductive attempts.

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