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Meerkat helpers buffer the detrimental effects of adverse environmental conditions on fecundity, growth and survival

Citation

Groenewoud, Frank; Clutton-Brock, Tim H. (2020), Meerkat helpers buffer the detrimental effects of adverse environmental conditions on fecundity, growth and survival, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.wstqjq2jp

Abstract

1. Recent comparative studies show that cooperative breeding is positively correlated with harsh and unpredictable environments and it is suggested that this association occurs because helpers buffer the negative effects of adverse ecological conditions on fitness.

2. In the Kalahari, rainfall varies widely between- and within years, affecting primary production and the availability of the principal prey of cooperatively breeding Kalahari meerkats, Suricata suricatta. Our study aimed to establish whether the presence and number of helpers buffer the negative effects of variation in rainfall on the fecundity and body mass of breeding females, and the survival and growth of pups.

3. We investigate the relationship between group size and variation in rainfall on dominant female fecundity, body mass, and offspring survival and growth using an additive modeling approach on twenty-one years of individual-based records of the life histories of individual meerkats.

4. We show that breeding female fecundity is reduced during periods of low rainfall but that the effects of low rainfall are mitigated by increases in group size and body mass because heavier females and those in larger groups have increased fecundity and reduced interbirth intervals. Pup growth and survival are also reduced during periods of low rainfall, but more so in smaller groups.

5. Our results support the suggestion that cooperative breeding mitigates the detrimental effects of adverse environmental conditions and may enhance the capacity of species to occupy environments where food availability is low and unpredictable.

Methods

These are long-term data collected from a population of habituated Meerkats at the Kalahari Research Center in Northern Cape, South Africa. The unique ID's for each individual in this dataset have been randomised and do therefore not correspond to similar ID's in this dataset or previous work from this population.

Usage Notes

All columns have been named according to their usage in the manuscript and should be intuitive to use. There are no missing values in these data. 

Funding

European Research Council, Award: 742808

European Research Council, Award: 294494