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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Apr 7;276(1660):1263-8. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1661. Epub 2009 Jan 6.

Manipulating grooming by decreasing ectoparasite load causes unpredicted changes in antagonism.

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Large Animal Research Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.


It is thought that allogrooming is practised strategically in order to establish, maintain and reinforce social bonds between group members, exchanging one altruistic behaviour for a different form of reciprocated benefit at a later date. Correlational evidence supports this, but evidence of causality is lacking. We reduced parasite loads in eight meerkat Suricata suricatta groups, generating a substantial decrease in grooming. Contrary to the predictions, overall antagonism did not increase. However, within group networks, grooming increased towards individuals who increased their antagonism. This was restricted to antagonism focused on social position, rather than access to physical resources. The treatment also increased an alternative placatory behaviour: unprompted submissions. Following treatment, individuals performed higher rates of guarding and marking behaviours, suggesting that they were stressed. A reduction in opportunity to mediate stress through grooming may explain local rises in antagonism and corresponding increases in placatory behaviours. We suggest that meerkats use allogrooming (and submissions) as a facultative response to antagonism, rather than a pre-emptive strategy to avert it by establishing a network of associations, as has been suggested for primates.

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