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J Exp Biol. 2008 Nov;211(Pt 22):3554-62. doi: 10.1242/jeb.016055.

Mother-young vocal communication and acoustic recognition promote preferential nursing in sheep.

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Equipe Comportement, Neurobiologie Adaptation, Unite de Physiologie de la Reproduction et des Comportements UMR 6175 CNRS INRA Universite de Tours Haras Nationaux, 37380 Nouzilly, France.


In mammals with precocial neonates, exclusive maternal care and investment depend on mutual mother-young recognition. In sheep, this is ensured by rapid olfactory recognition of the neonate by its mother. However, recent studies suggest that other processes may participate in preferential maternal care. We investigated the possibility that acoustic communication promotes preferential nursing of the lamb. In the first of two studies, we examined the association between nursing and vocal activity in ewes and their lambs during the first 2 weeks of lactation. As early as 3 and 6 h postpartum, vocal activity was preferentially concentrated before nursing and by day 15 all vocal activity occurred within 2.5 min before nursing. In the second study, we tested the responses of ewes and lambs at 15 days postpartum to the playback of recorded bleats of their partner or from unrelated ewes and lambs. When playback was performed 30 min after a nursing episode, both ewes and lambs responded to bleats of their partner but not to bleats from alien subjects. When playback was performed 5 min after nursing, ewes did not respond to any lamb's bleats, while lambs continued responding to the bleats of their mothers, but significantly less than 30 min after nursing. Nursing therefore appears to play an important role in structuring very early vocal communication between the mother and her neonate. In turn, if the motivational state of the members of the mother-young dyad is adequate, this ensures the display of mutual acoustic recognition and prepares them for preferential nursing before maternal olfactory recognition of the lamb comes into play.

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