A new study from the University of Bristol reveals that increased intergroup conflict may actually enhance the survival of animal offspring. This discovery challenges the long-standing belief that such conflicts negatively impact reproductive success.
“Groups engaged in more intergroup interactions did not produce more young. Rather, a greater threat from outsiders was associated with a higher survival likelihood of pups once they emerged from the breeding burrow,” noted study lead author Dr. Amy Morris-Drake.
The research was focused on a decade’s worth of life-history data on a wild population of dwarf mongooses. These small carnivores, the smallest in Africa, live in groups of 5-30 individuals and are known for their cooperative breeding and territorial behavior.
A unique aspect of this study is its methodological approach, involving detailed behavioral observations of study groups in South Africa.
The dwarf mongooses were individually marked with blonde hair dye, trained to weigh themselves on a balance scale, and observed closely in their natural, ecologically valid conditions.
One of the key behavioral changes noted was an increase in sentinel (raised guarding) behavior when threats from rival groups were perceived.
“Increased sentinel behavior is likely an attempt to gather more information about the other group. But sentinels also detect predatory threats and warn groupmates of danger, so vulnerable pups are potentially safer as a consequence,” explained study senior author Professor Andy Radford.
This study offers a novel perspective on intergroup conflict, suggesting that the heightened vigilance and behavioral adaptations resulting from these conflicts could indirectly benefit offspring survival.
“We are not suggesting that conflict has a direct positive effect on breeding success. Instead, there could be byproduct benefits of behavioral changes – such as increased vigilance – that result from an increased threat level,” said Professor Radford.
Dr. Morris-Drake emphasized the broader implications of their findings: “Our work suggests that if we are to understand the importance of warfare on societies, we must consider threats as well as actual fights. Moreover, we need to investigate not just actions on the battleground but the wider consequences too.”
The study not only provides insights into the complex dynamics of animal societies but also contributes to our understanding of the evolutionary implications of intergroup conflicts.
The dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula) is a small African carnivore belonging to the mongoose family (Herpestidae).
Dwarf mongooses are small, typically weighing between 200-350 grams. They have a slender body, a pointed nose, small ears, and a bushy tail. Their fur is usually reddish-brown or greyish-brown.
They are highly social animals, living in cooperative groups of around 5 to 30 individuals. Group members have specific roles, including breeding pairs and ‘babysitters’ who help care for the young.
Vocal communication is common, with distinct calls for various purposes, like warning of predators.
Dwarf mongooses are commonly found in dry grasslands and savannahs, often near woodlands or rocky outcrops. Their range extends across much of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Their diet mainly consists of insects, although they also eat small rodents, birds, reptiles, eggs, and fruit. Dwarf mongooses forage in groups during the day, with one or more individuals acting as sentinels to warn of predators.
Typically, only the dominant female in a group breeds, giving birth to litters of 2 to 4 pups. In the wild, they live for about 4 to 6 years, though this can be longer in captivity.
The main threats to dwarf mongooses include habitat loss and predation by larger mammals and birds of prey. Currently, they are not considered endangered and have a stable population trend.
The research is part of the ongoing Dwarf Mongoose Research Project, which has been studying habituated wild groups since 2011.
The study was funded by a European Research Council Consolidator Grant awarded to Professor Radford.
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