A retrospective view of early research on dominance, stress and reproduction in cooperatively breeding carnivores
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Social carnivores have been central in studies of cooperative breeding, and research using noninvasive methods to examine behavioral and endocrine mechanisms of reproductive suppression started in the 1980s with dwarf mongooses in Serengeti National Park. Here, I synthesize the methods, findings and limitations of a research program that examined relationships between social dominance, age, mass, aggression, mating, gonadal steroids, glucocorticoids and reproduction in female and male dwarf mongooses, African wild dogs and wolves. Infanticide is a reliable backstop for reproductive suppression in females, and reproduction is energetically costly in these species. These conditions favor hypothalamic – pituitary – gonadal (HPG) adaptations that reduce the fertility of subordinate females to avoid the cost of producing doomed offspring. Infanticide also favors close synchronization of reproduction when subordinate females do become pregnant. In males, infanticide is a less reliable backstop and reproduction is less costly, so direct effects of subordination on fertility are less pronounced. Age is a strong predictor of social dominance in these species, but the evolutionary reason for this is not clear. In dwarf mongooses and wild dogs, alpha females were never deposed by younger packmates, but alpha males were: this difference is also not understood. Patterns of reproduction supported models predicting that alphas are less likely to share reproduction when the fitness costs of reproduction are high, when the fitness expected for dispersers is low, and with young subordinates to whom they are more closely related. Correlations between dominance and adrenal glucocorticoid concentrations varied between species and sexes, but did not support the hypothesis that chronic stress causes reproductive suppression.
Creel, S. (2022). A retrospective view of early research on dominance, stress and reproduction in cooperatively breeding carnivores. Hormones and Behavior, 140, 105119.