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Title: Individual variation in cooperative behaviour in meerkats
Author: English, Sinéad
ISNI:       0000 0004 2707 0500
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2010
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Individual variation in cooperation is a striking yet poorly understood feature of many animal societies, particularly in cooperative breeders where individuals assist in the care of young that are not their own. While previous research on these systems has emphasised the plasticity of helping and how it varies with current environmental and social conditions, in this dissertation I examine how individual variation is constrained and influenced by trade-offs with other behaviours and experiences in early life. I demonstrate that variation in cooperative pup care (babysitting and provisioning) is consistent within individuals over time (Chapter 3). Provisioning is more consistent than babysitting, although the two behaviours are highly correlated within individuals. I then focus on the variation in helping that remains once current factors, such as condition, group size and food availability, are taken into account. In Chapter 4, I explore the possibility that variation in helping can be explained by personality, or consistency in behavioural traits such as exploration or risk-taking. I find little evidence for consistent individual differences in field measures of personality traits, however, with such behaviours instead being group-specific. Early social experiences are known to have important and lasting effects on later fitness and behaviour: in Chapter 5, I demonstrate that, in female meerkats only, growing up in a group with more helpers is correlated with reduced cooperation later in life. This result suggests the importance of future fitness in influencing current cooperative behaviour, as females raised in larger groups are more likely to attain dominance. Finally, I examine the extent to which vocal communication between carers and young is influenced by variation in contributions to cooperation. Females are more sensitive to increased begging rate (Chapter 6), which reflects general sex differences in cooperative behaviour. Carers modify their vocalizations but not their foraging behaviour in the presence of pups, and the way in which they vocalize during provisioning events suggests these calls serve to increase efficiency of prey transfer (Chapter 7).
Supervisor: Clutton-Brock, Tim ; Madden, Joah Sponsor: Natural Environment Research Council (grant number NER/S/A/2005/13275) ; Clare College
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Cooperative breeding ; Individual variation ; Meerkats ; Personality ; Communication ; l care