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Band Structure and Failures of Reproductive Suppression in a Cooperatively Breeding Carnivore, the Slender-Tailed Meerkat (Suricata Suricatta)

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The extent to which band structure influences the distribution of breeding activity is unknown for the slender-tailed meerkat Suricata suricatta, a cooperatively breeding mongoose. Here we present the residence histories of three focal bands monitored over ten band-years in the southwestern Kalahari, with less detailed data derived from non-focal bands for a further 20 band-years. Mean total band size early in the breeding season was 10, and mean size excluding juveniles was 6.7. Despite a tendency towards females among juveniles, and males among yearlings and adults, sex ratios within each age class did not significantly deviate from unity, but at the population level there were significantly more adult males than reproductive females. A large proportion (71.6%) of adult females bred, and failures of reproductive suppression occurred in 40% of band years. This incidence was high in all years and was not obviously related to environmental conditions. Bands with more than one reproductive female contained significantly more adults and adult females than bands with only a single reproductive female. There was a strong correlation between numbers of reproductive females and numbers of adult females in a band. Most (68%) subordinate females which bred were aged three years or more. Reproductive competition was strong and there was a negative correlation between numbers of adult females, breeding females or adult males and per capita juvenile production. Meerkat bands are unusual among cooperative breeders because many individuals were non-kin and the relative constancy in band size within and between years masked a high turnover of membership: all animals of known origin aged three years or older, were immigrants, although philopatry was commoner among younger animals. Our data show that meerkats employ a range of reproductive strategies: bands exhibiting a spectrum of reproductive suppression coexist, and individuals respond to the opportunities afforded by their social environments.

Affiliations: 1: (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Zoology, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK


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