Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Policing of reproduction by hidden threats in a cooperative mammal.

PMID 24367092


The evolution of cooperation in animal and human societies is associated with mechanisms to suppress individual selfishness. In insect societies, queens and workers enforce cooperation by "policing" selfish reproduction by workers. Insect policing typically takes the form of damage limitation after individuals have carried out selfish acts (such as laying eggs). In contrast, human policing is based on the use of threats that deter individuals from acting selfishly in the first place, minimizing the need for damage limitation. Policing by threat could in principle be used to enforce reproductive suppression in animal societies, but testing this idea requires an experimental approach to simulate reproductive transgression and provoke out-of-equilibrium behavior. We carried out an experiment of this kind on a wild population of cooperatively breeding banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) in Uganda. In this species, each group contains multiple female breeders that give birth to a communal litter, usually on the same day. In a 7-y experiment we used contraceptive injections to manipulate the distribution of maternity within groups, triggering hidden threats of infanticide. Our data suggest that older, socially dominant females use the threat of infanticide to deter selfish reproduction by younger females, but that females can escape the threat of infanticide by synchronizing birth to the same day as older females. Our study shows that reproduction in animal societies can be profoundly influenced by threats that remain hidden until they are triggered experimentally. Coercion may thus extend well beyond the systems in which acts of infanticide are common.