Delayed maturity, group fission and the limits of group size in female Cape ground squirrels (Sciuridae: Xerus inauris)

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Abstract

Female Cape ground squirrels Xerus inauris live in matrilineal kin groups in which the number of reproductive positions is limited to three females. Field observations on a population in Namibia revealed that the mechanisms by which group size was limited were reproductive suppression and group fission. Sub-adult females attained sexual maturity at 8 months of age when only a single adult female was present in their social group, whereas sub-adult females in groups with more than one adult female matured at 12 months of age. Social groups with more than three breeding females subsequently split into smaller groups. Several hypotheses for limiting group size were considered. There was no evidence of higher ectoparasite loads on females in larger groups, nor was survival of adult females affected by group size. Although adult females have lower body masses and higher mortality during the winter when food is more scarce, feeding competition alone does not seem to limit group size. Groups that split continued to overlap in their feeding ranges and there was no seasonal difference in juvenile survival. However, juvenile survival was affected by group size. The greatest cost of being in a larger group was lower juvenile survival. Larger groups use larger feeding ranges, and because squirrels return to their sleeping burrow when threatened, not just to the nearest refuge, slower juveniles have greater exposure to predators. Thus, although competition for food resources may be important, predation seems to be a major constraint on female group size as well as the primary selective force leading to female group formation.

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