October 13, 2005

Prof Speaks About Meerkat Breeding

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In a lecture entitled “The Evolution of Cooperative Breeding in Mammals,” Prof. Timothy Clutton-Brock, Cambridge University, declared mutualism as the major reason behind the dedicated cooperation in meerkat colonies. Addressing faculty, graduate students and undergraduates yesterday in the Biotechnology building, Clutton-Brock discussed why helpers in the cooperative breeding meerkats generously aided in activities that did not yield direct benefits. The question is, what is in it for them?

“In almost all human activities, all bigger groups are better,” Clutton-Brock said, in an attempt to connect the idea of cooperation in humans with that of other mammals. Maintenance of large groups through cooperation was the central theme of the lecture.

In the world of cooperative breeding, meerkats belong to a category known as obligate cooperative breeders in which cooperation is necessary for the production of offspring. Meerkat colonies consist of one dominant female, responsible for approximately 80 percent of the litter and a dominant male whose mating with several other subordinate females account for the remaining 20 percent of pups. The remainder of the meerkat colony consists of helpers who aid in babysitting, pup protection and pup feeding. Clutton-Brock suggested several possible explanations for the loyal behavior of helpers including coincidental benefits, coercion by dominant individuals, indirect benefits such as helping of kin and mutualism. In determining the drive behind this cooperation, the receivers of the benefits of the helpers work, costs of helping and workload distribution were discussed.

The results from field studies revealed that the entire colony benefits immensely from the work of helpers. This is especially important because a large number of helpers in a group allows for the survival of a larger group with more offspring. More offspring in turn contribute to the ultimate goal of passing on a colony’s genes to subsequent generations.

Clutton-Brock also concluded that this helping behavior was not as costly as expected. Excluding the costs the helpers bore associated with remaining within the natal group and inability to breed, studies indicated that marginal costs were quite low. One reason for this was that individuals who foraged more subsequently did more work. Individual helpers would also alternate in the generosity of their aid at any one time. In addition, it was found that generously working did not have any adverse affect on their health or survival. Although they grew more slowly than less generous workers, they were not prone to larger mortality rates. Helpers were therefore able to reduce the workload of the breeders and other group members.

Although Clutton-Brock was initially hesitant to relate kinship to the behavior of the helpers, he ended the lecture stressing the link between mutualism and kin selection, suggesting that the relatedness between meerkats in a colony may play a role in their specialized cooperative behavior. Pat Barclay expressed support of the potential application to human behavior, and the conclusions made in the lecture, “mutualism, where it applies, is certainly a possibility.”

Sheng-Feng Shen grad was interested in the professor’s view of cooperation as “a simple process” instead of as a complex process, as it has traditionally been viewed.

Archived article by Sanika Kulkarni
Sun Staff Writer