The importance of being beta: female succession in a cooperative breeder

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Duncan, C 
Gaynor, D 
Clutton-Brock, Timothy  ORCID logo

In singular cooperative breeders few females breed successfully, but those that acquire dominant positions can achieve high levels of breeding success, leading to strong selection for traits that enable individuals to acquire and maintain dominance status. However, little is known about the process by which females acquire dominant breeding status or the traits that enable them to do so. Female meerkats, Suricata suricatta, can acquire dominance either by inheritance after the death of the previous dominant, by displacing the incumbent dominant or at the foundation of a new group. Here we investigated the possible fitness benefits associated with these different routes to dominance and the traits that affect an individual's probability of acquiring dominance via these routes. We found that all routes to dominance had similar fitness benefits and that when a dominance vacancy arose, weight was the main determinate of succession, with age still influencing within-group succession and the eldest subordinate female, the beta, often succeeding to dominance. Since the chance that subordinate females will acquire dominance is also positively correlated with the duration of their tenure in the beta position, we tested whether beta females adjusted their growth or cooperative behaviour to avoid eviction and increased their tenure length as the beta. However, there was no indication that betas employed either strategy to increase their tenure. Given that the differing routes to dominance have equivalent fitness pay-offs and are triggered stochastically, selection probably favours flexibility rather than strategies that commit individuals to a specific route.

cooperative breeders, dominance acquisition, dominants, reproductive success, strategic growth, succession
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Animal Behaviour
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European Research Council (294494)
Natural Environment Research Council (NE/G006822/1)
The Kalahari Meerkat Project was funded by the European Research Council (grant no. 294494), the Natural Environment Research Council (grant no. NE/G006822/1) and the Swiss National Science Foundation and supported by the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich and Pretoria.