Letter | Published:

Competitive growth in a cooperative mammal

Nature volume 533, pages 532534 (26 May 2016) | Download Citation


In many animal societies where hierarchies govern access to reproduction, the social rank of individuals is related to their age and weight1,2,3,4,5 and slow-growing animals may lose their place in breeding queues to younger ‘challengers’ that grow faster5,6. The threat of being displaced might be expected to favour the evolution of competitive growth strategies, where individuals increase their own rate of growth in response to increases in the growth of potential rivals. Although growth rates have been shown to vary in relation to changes in the social environment in several vertebrates including fish2,3,7 and mammals8, it is not yet known whether individuals increase their growth rates in response to increases in the growth of particular reproductive rivals. Here we show that, in wild Kalahari meerkats (Suricata suricatta), subordinates of both sexes respond to experimentally induced increases in the growth of same-sex rivals by raising their own growth rate and food intake. In addition, when individuals acquire dominant status, they show a secondary period of accelerated growth whose magnitude increases if the difference between their own weight and that of the heaviest subordinate of the same sex in their group is small. Our results show that individuals adjust their growth to the size of their closest competitor and raise the possibility that similar plastic responses to the risk of competition may occur in other social mammals, including domestic animals and primates.

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We are grateful to the many volunteers, field managers, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers who have contributed to data collection over the past 15 years, and to D. Gaynor, I. Stevenson, P. Roth, J. Samson, R. Millar, E. Cameron, J. du Toit and M. Haupt for support. We are grateful to M. Manser for her contribution to the organization of the Kalahari Meerkat Project and to C. Drea for additional help and advice. We also thank D. Cram for comments on previous drafts, and A. Bateman, A. Courtiol and M. Crawley for statistical advice. Northern Cape Conservation and the Kotze family provided permission to work in the Kalahari. Our work was approved by the Animal Ethics Committee of the University of Pretoria (project number EC010-13). The Kalahari Meerkat Project is supported and organized by the Universities of Cambridge and Zurich. This research was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (grant NE/G006822/1) and the European Research Council (grant 294494).

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Author notes

    • Sinead English
    •  & Matt B. V. Bell

    Present addresses: Behavioural Ecology Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK (S.E.); Institute for Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK (M.B.V.B.).


  1. Large Animal Research Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK

    • Elise Huchard
    • , Sinead English
    • , Matt B. V. Bell
    •  & Tim Clutton-Brock
  2. CEFE UMR 5175, CNRS - Université de Montpellier, 1919 Route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France

    • Elise Huchard
  3. Department of Zoology and Entomology, Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, Gauteng 0002, South Africa

    • Nathan Thavarajah
    •  & Tim Clutton-Brock


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E.H. implemented the analysis and drafted the results; T.H.C.-B., S.E. and M.B. planned the experiments, which were conducted by N.T. and other members of the Kalahari Meerkat Project; E.H., S.E., M.B. and T.H.C.-B. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elise Huchard.

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