Additive genetic variance and developmental plasticity in growth trajectories in a wild cooperative mammal

E. Huchard*, A. Charmantier, S. English, A. Bateman, J. F. Nielsen, T. Clutton-Brock

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


Individual variation in growth is high in cooperative breeders and may reflect plastic divergence in developmental trajectories leading to breeding vs. helping phenotypes. However, the relative importance of additive genetic variance and developmental plasticity in shaping growth trajectories is largely unknown in cooperative vertebrates. This study exploits weekly sequences of body mass from birth to adulthood to investigate sources of variance in, and covariance between, early and later growth in wild meerkats (Suricata suricatta), a cooperative mongoose. Our results indicate that (i) the correlation between early growth (prior to nutritional independence) and adult mass is positive but weak, and there are frequent changes (compensatory growth) in post-independence growth trajectories; (ii) among parameters describing growth trajectories, those describing growth rate (prior to and at nutritional independence) show undetectable heritability while associated size parameters (mass at nutritional independence and asymptotic mass) are moderately heritable (0.09 ≤ h2 < 0.3); and (iii) additive genetic effects, rather than early environmental effects, mediate the covariance between early growth and adult mass. These results reveal that meerkat growth trajectories remain plastic throughout development, rather than showing early and irreversible divergence, and that the weak effects of early growth on adult mass, an important determinant of breeding success, are partly genetic. In contrast to most cooperative invertebrates, the acquisition of breeding status is often determined after sexual maturity and strongly impacted by chance in many cooperative vertebrates, who may therefore retain the ability to adjust their morphology to environmental changes and social opportunities arising throughout their development, rather than specializing early.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1893-1904
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Cooperative breeding
  • Early environmental effects
  • Growth trajectories
  • Heritability
  • Meerkats
  • Suricata suricatta


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