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Suppressing subordinate reproduction provides benefits to dominants in cooperative societies of meerkats

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  • M. B. V. Bell
  • M. A. Cant
  • C. Borgeaud
  • N. Thavarajah
  • J. Samson
  • T. H. Clutton-brock

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Original languageEnglish
Article number4499
JournalNature Communications
Publication statusPublished - 2014


In many animal societies, a small proportion of dominant females monopolize reproduction by actively suppressing subordinates. Theory assumes that this is because subordinate reproduction depresses the fitness of dominants, yet the effect of subordinate reproduction on dominant behaviour and reproductive success has never been directly assessed. Here, we describe the consequences of experimentally preventing subordinate breeding in 12 groups of wild meerkats (Suricata suricatta) for three breeding attempts, using contraceptive injections. When subordinates are prevented from breeding, dominants are less aggressive towards subordinates and evict them less often, leading to a higher ratio of helpers to dependent pups, and increased provisioning of the dominant’s pups by subordinate females. When subordinate breeding is suppressed, dominants also show improved foraging efficiency, gain more weight during pregnancy and produce heavier pups, which grow faster. These results confirm the benefits of suppression to dominants, and help explain the evolution of singular breeding in vertebrate societies.

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