The development of individual differences in cooperative behaviour: Maternal glucocorticoid hormones alter helping behaviour of offspring in wild meerkats

Ben Dantzer, Constance Dubuc, Ines Braga Goncalves, Dominic Cram, Bennett Nigel, Andre Ganswindt, Michael Heistermann, Duncan Chris, David Gaynor, Tim H. Clutton-Brock

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The phenotype of parents can have long-lasting effects on the development of offspring aswell as on their behaviour, physiology and morphology as adults. In some cases, these changes may increase offspring fitness but, in others, they can elevate parental fitness at a cost to the fitness of their offspring. We show that in Kalahari meerkats (Suricata suricatta), the circulating glucocorticoid (GC) hormones of pregnant females affect the growth and cooperative behaviour of their offspring.
We performed a 3-year experiment in wild meerkats to test the hypothesis that GC-mediated maternal effects reduce the potential for offspring to reproduce directly and therefore cause them to exhibit more cooperative behaviour. Daughters (but not sons) born to mothers treated with cortisol during pregnancy grew more slowly early in life and exhibited significantly more of two types of cooperative behaviour (pup rearing and feeding) once they were adults compared to offspring from control mothers. They also had lower measures of GCs as they aged, which could explain the observed increases in cooperative behaviour. Because early life growth is a crucial determinant of fitness in female meerkats, our results indicate that GC-mediated maternal effects may reduce the fitness of offspring, but may elevate parental fitness as a consequence of increasing the cooperative behaviour of their daughters.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20180117
Pages (from-to)20180117
Number of pages16
JournalPhilosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1770
Early online date25 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2019



  • Cooperation
  • Early life adversity
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Growth
  • Maternal stress

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