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Keywords:

  • Bathyergidae;
  • cooperative breeding;
  • eusociality;
  • inbreeding depression;
  • incest avoidance;
  • reproductive skew

A number of social mole-rat species maintain a strong reproductive skew (only one breeding pair in the group) solely through incest avoidance. Incest avoidance probably evolved for one of two reasons, namely for actually maintaining a reproductive skew or, alternatively, to avoid high inbreeding depression. In the latter case a strong reproductive skew would result as a fortuitous by-product of the combination of a cloistral family life style of mole-rats and incest avoidance. We undertook breeding experiments in which the fertility of pairs of unrelated individuals were compared with that of pairs of double first cousins. Inbreeding depression was remarkably high and an accompanying model suggests that it may be sufficient to support the idea that strong incest avoidance evolved primarily to eliminate the costs of inbreeding and subsequently facilitated the evolution of reproductive skew.