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The Proximate Mechanisms of Natal Dispersal in Female Horses

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The aim of this study was to investigate proximate mechanisms of natal dispersal by female horses, Equus caballus (i.e. proximate causes and the factors influencing the timing), and to test predictions from two functional hypotheses: the intrasexual competition hypothesis, and inbreeding avoidance. The data concerned 40 individuals born between 1974-1985 in a closely monitored herd which developed a natural social structure during this period. All the females dispersed from their natal groups; none became solitary; 80% transferred to existing harems, the others formed new groups with bachelor stallions. Abduction by stallions affected only a quarter of the females whose transfers were observed. The results of this study do not support the hypothesis that a function of natal dispersal is to reduce intrasexual competition. The young females were not expelled by resident females of their natal groups, and did not, as a rule, experience increased aggression from these females before emigration. Their social bonds with members of their natal groups showed no progressive weakening prior to departure, and there was no gradual strengthening of bonds with individuals in the groups to which they transferred. There was no evidence for reproductive competition between the young females and resident mares of their natal groups, since the young females always refused the sexual approaches by males of these groups. Finally, age at dispersal did not decrease with the number of resident females in the groups they left. In contrast, as predicted by the inbreeding avoidance hypothesis, the primary cause of dispersal appeared to be sexual attraction to unfamiliar males. When in oestrus and before dispersing, the young females accepted matings only with males of other groups in spite of frequent sexual approaches by males of their natal groups (normally close relatives). In addition, none dispersed before first oestrus, and most did so during an oestrous period, at or before the conception of their first foal. The mothers of most young females interposed themselves when close kin males of the natal group approached their daughters sexually; this could contribute to the avoidance of close inbreeding. Among the other factors examined, some did not influence dispersal of the young females : they experienced low levels of aggression by adult stallions of their natal groups, particularly at the time of departure; their weight and body condition had no significant effects on leaving age nor did their mother's rank, the number of siblings, or the birth of another. In contrast, as the number of groups and the breeding sex ratio increased, dispersal age declined, occurring at a median age of 23 months (range 12-42 months) in the later years, when the herd had developed a natural social system.

Affiliations: 1: Station Biologique de la Tour du Valat, Le Sambuc, 13200 Arles, France, Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, CNRS, 79360 Beauvoir/Niort, France; 2: Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, CNRS, 79360 Beauvoir/Niort, France; 3: Station Biologique de la Tour du Valat, Le Sambuc, 13200 Arles, France

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