Indiscriminate nursing in communal breeders: A role for genomic imprinting

March 12, 2003

In several communally nesting mammal species, females indiscriminately nurse each others' offspring. Previous hypotheses have suggested that the inability to recognize one's own young during lactation is the result of costs incurred by recognition errors. In an article to appear in the March issue of Ecology Letters, researchers from Cambridge University now propose an alternative hypothesis based on sexual conflict theory and genomic imprinting.

In the absence of lifetime monogamy, males and females have conflicting interests over the amount of maternal investment in offspring, with males favouring more maternal investment than is optimal for the female. In polygynous species, males copulate with several females that may later breed communally. Thus, offspring in a communal nest will be more closely related through the paternal than the maternal line. It may therefore be in the male's interest that all of his offspring are nursed regardless of their maternal origin. This may have selected for paternally expressed genes that suppress kin recognition during lactation.
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Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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