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Keywords:

  • African mole-rat;
  • Bathyergidae;
  • colony structure;
  • parentage;
  • reproductive skew;
  • reproductive suppression

Abstract

Colonies of co-operatively breeding African mole-rats have traditionally been thought to be composed of a single breeding female, one or two breeding males, and their offspring. In the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), the occurrence of facultative inbreeding means incest avoidance cannot prevent reproduction in subordinate group members, and physiological suppression of reproductive function by the breeding female occurs in both sexes. In contrast, previous studies of captive colonies of the Damaraland mole-rat (Cryptomys damarensis) suggest that breeding within a colony is restricted to a single breeding pair, simply because all other colony members are highly related (first- or second-order relatives) and this species is an obligate outbreeder. Using microsatellite markers, we investigated parentage and colony composition in 18 wild Damaraland mole-rat colonies to determine whether inbreeding avoidance alone can explain the high levels of reproductive skew in this species. Multiple and unidentified paternity was widespread within colonies and immigrants of both sexes were regularly identified. Unrelated, opposite-sex nonbreeders were found coexisting in two colonies. These results suggest that, in the wild, conditions exist where nonreproductive females can come into contact with unrelated males, even when they do not disperse from their natal colony. Inbreeding avoidance alone is therefore insufficient to maintain the high levels of reproductive skew identified in this species suggesting that the breeding female somehow suppresses the reproductive function in nonbreeding females.