Meerkat helpers buffer the detrimental effects of adverse environmental conditions on fecundity, growth and survival.

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Clutton-Brock, Tim 

Recent comparative studies show that cooperative breeding is positively correlated with harsh and unpredictable environments and it is suggested that this association occurs because helpers buffer the negative effects of adverse ecological conditions on fitness. In the Kalahari, rainfall varies widely between- and within years, affecting primary production and the availability of the principal prey of cooperatively breeding Kalahari meerkats, Suricata suricatta. Our study aimed to establish whether the presence and number of helpers buffer the negative effects of variation in rainfall on the fecundity and body mass of breeding females, and the survival and growth of pups. We investigate the relationship between group size and variation in rainfall on dominant female fecundity, body mass, and offspring survival and growth using an additive modelling approach on 21 years of individual-based records of the life histories of individual meerkats. We show that breeding female fecundity is reduced during periods of low rainfall but that the effects of low rainfall are mitigated by increases in group size and body mass because heavier females and those in larger groups have increased fecundity and reduced interbirth intervals. Pup growth and survival are also reduced during periods of low rainfall, but only in smaller groups. Our results support the suggestion that cooperative breeding mitigates the detrimental effects of adverse environmental conditions and may enhance the capacity of species to occupy environments where food availability is low and unpredictable.

Suricata suricatta, cooperative breeding, environmental conditions, fecundity, group size, growth, meerkat, offspring survival, Animals, Botswana, Female, Fertility, Herpestidae, Reproduction
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J Anim Ecol
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European Research Council (294494)
European Research Council (742808)