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Density Triggers Maternal Hormones That Increase Adaptive Offspring Growth in a Wild Mammal

Science  07 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6137, pp. 1215-1217
DOI: 10.1126/science.1235765

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Thank Your Mother

Maternal effects and influence can sometimes prepare unborn offspring for some of the environmental conditions they may face. Dantzer et al. (p. 1215, published online 18 April) monitored a population of red squirrels and found that both natural and artificially induced increases in the number of conspecific calls increased the growth rate of pups because of increased glucocorticoid levels in the mother. The density stress experienced by mothers thus appears to stimulate them to produce pups that will grow faster and hopefully outcompete the many other pups expected to be produced in the dense population.

Abstract

In fluctuating environments, mothers may enhance the fitness of their offspring by adjusting offspring phenotypes to match the environment they will experience at independence. In free-ranging red squirrels, natural selection on offspring postnatal growth rates varies according to population density, with selection favoring faster-growing offspring under high-density conditions. We show that exposing mothers to high-density cues, accomplished via playbacks of territorial vocalizations, led to increased offspring growth rates in the absence of additional food resources. Experimental elevation of actual and perceived density induced higher maternal glucocorticoid levels, and females with naturally or experimentally increased glucocorticoids produced offspring that grew faster than controls. Therefore, social cues reflecting population density were sufficient to elicit increased offspring growth through an adaptive hormone-mediated maternal effect.

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