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Maternal investment during pregnancy in wild meerkats

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date09/2013
JournalEvolutionary Ecology
Journal number5
Volume27
Number of pages12
Pages1033-1044
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Maternal investment in offspring development is a major determinant of the survival and future reproductive success of both the mother and her young. Mothers might therefore be expected to adjust their investment according to ecological conditions in order to maximise their lifetime fitness. In cooperatively breeding species, where helpers assist breeders with offspring care, the size of the group may also influence maternal investment strategies because the costs of reproduction are shared between breeders and helpers. Here, we use longitudinal records of body mass and life history traits from a wild population of meerkats (Suricata suricatta) to explore the pattern of growth in pregnant females and investigate how the rate of growth varies with characteristics of the litter, environmental conditions, maternal traits and group size. Gestational growth was slight during the first half of pregnancy but was marked and linear from the midpoint of gestation until birth. The rate of gestational growth in the second half of pregnancy increased with litter size, maternal age and body mass, and was higher for litters conceived during the peak of the breeding season when it is hot and wet. Gestational growth rate was lower in larger groups, especially when litter size was small. These results suggest that there are ecological and physiological constraints on gestational growth in meerkats, and that females may also be able to strategically adjust their prenatal investment in offspring according to the likely fitness costs and benefits of a particular breeding attempt. Mothers in larger groups may benefit from reducing their investment because having more helpers might allow them to lower reproductive costs without decreasing breeding success.