Mara Zali, MSc Student

Submission calls in female meerkats

Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
University of Zurich

Animals living in groups benefit of many advantages, but they also invariably experience the costs of conflicts that arise when group members have different interests. Among animal species many strategies have evolved to reduce these costs, and one of them, present in some dominance hierarchies, is the display of submissive behaviours. Submission is displayed by the subordinate to signal its inferiority to the dominant. Among female meerkats there is a strong reproductive conflict, as both dominant and subordinate adult females can reproduce and resources for the pups are limited. To monopolize the breeding, the dominant female behaviourally suppresses reproduction of subordinate females by aggressing them, especially when she is pregnant, and she often evicts subordinate females from the group toward the end of her pregnancy. To avoid the costs of conflict, subordinate females submit to the dominant female through submissive body postures and bouts of fast high-pitched calls known as submission calls. In my master’s thesis I performed acoustical analyses to investigate what do submission calls convey. I investigated whether submission calls of female meerkats contain individual signatures, which could play a role in the regulation of the conflict. I also asked whether their submission calls convey the intensity of the reproductive conflict, which is higher when the dominant female is close to parturition and when subordinate females are older and more likely to reproduce themselves. Further studies on this topic may include behavioural observations, acoustical analyses and playback experiments to reveal more about the information conveyed by submission calls as well as their exact function.

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