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Can Marmoset Mothers Count to Three? Effect of Litter Size on Mother–Infant Interactions


Suzette D. Tardif, Southwest Regional Primate Research Center, P.O. Box 760549, San Antonio, TX 78245-0549, USA. E-mail:


Harper (Parental Care in Mammals, Plenum Press, New York, 1981, p. 158) proposed that ‘there may be lower and upper limits for frequency or intensity of offspring stimulation that, on average, serve as reliable boundaries, below or above which it would be uneconomical to invest at all or at current levels.‘ This proposition was tested in captive common marmosets by comparing the responses of marmoset mothers exposed to differing number of infants. Fifteen common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) litters (seven twin and eight triplet litters) from 11 different dams were observed for 6–12, 30-min sessions over days 1–4 following birth. Mothers nursed smaller infants less frequently (F = 4.208, df = 1, 22; p = 0.052) regardless of litter size. The percent time mothers spent transporting (nursing and carrying) each infant was less for triplets than twins (F = 11.785, df = 1, 12; p = 0.005). Average transport bout length was significantly shorter for smaller infants (F = 7.566, df = 1, 22; p = 0.012) and was half as long for triplet infants as for twins (F = 10.733, df = 1, 7; p = 0.013). Twice as many transport bouts for triplets included maternal harassment of infants, than for twins (F = 42.742, df = 1, 24; p = 0.0001). Infant-initiated transfers to the mother were more common for triplets than for twins (Mann–Whitney U = 79.50, p = 0.006). The overall maternal carrying score (% carry × number of infants carried) was lower for triplet litters than for twin litters (F = 15.38, df = 1, 3; p = 0.029); i.e. mothers of triplets did not, overall, invest in more carrying and nursing than did mothers of twins but instead invested less. These findings suggest that, as opposed to the strong attraction to infants that is common for many primates, the marmoset mother's tolerance for carrying infants does not increase with increasing infant stimuli present; rather, marmoset mothers will only tolerate a limited amount of time transporting and nursing infants, regardless of litter size. This limited tolerance may be due to the species’ small body size and anti-predator strategies (e.g. concealment) that make infant care incompatible with other essential activities, such as foraging.