Mongoose pups may conceal their identity to avoid attack by adults they are not closely related to.
Credit: © Nazzu / Fotolia

Young mongooses may conceal their identity — even from their own parents — to survive.

Killing of pups is common in mongoose social groups, and researchers from the University of Exeter believe offspring may do best if they hide which adults they are related to.

Concealing identity reduces the risk of attack by less-related adults, the researchers say.

But it means mothers may not be able to tell pups apart, and therefore cannot pay special attention to their own young.

Find your dream job in the space industry. Check our Space Job Board »

“In most species we would expect mothers target care at their own offspring, but mongooses seem unable to do this,” said Dr Emma Vitikainen, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“We think this is because mothers synchronise birth to the same day, and pups may have evolved to conceal their identity.

“In the banded mongoose infanticide is common, and it might be too dangerous for the pups to advertise which adults they are most closely related to, as this could expose them to spiteful behaviour by less-related group members.”

A system of adult “helpers” operates in mongoose groups, with adults often looking after pups that are not their own.

They do not choose which young to care for based on relatedness, the researchers said.

Dr Vitikainen added: “Intriguingly, we also found that female helpers tend to pair up with female pups, and male helpers with male pups.” The study also found that females become more likely to act as helpers after they have given birth.

Professor Michael Cant, who leads the long-term study of banded mongooses in Uganda said: “We know that among adults, individuals can discriminate kin from non-kin when it comes to mating and evicting rivals from the group.

“But for pups that are vulnerable to infanticide, anonymity may be the best strategy for all.”

The paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is entitled: “Biased escorts: offspring sex, not relatedness explains alloparental care patterns in a cooperative breeder.”

Story Source: Materials provided by University of Exeter.Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Emma I. K. Vitikainen, Harry H. Marshall, Faye J. Thompson, Jenni L. Sanderson, Matthew B. V. Bell, Jason S. Gilchrist, Sarah J. Hodge, Hazel J. Nichols, Michael A. Cant . Biased escorts: offspring sex, not relatedness explains alloparental care patterns in a cooperative breeder. . Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2017; 284 (1854): 20162384 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2384