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Abstract

The nursing behavior of Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis mexicana) was examined in two large maternity cave roosts during six nursing seasons. After depositing pups in large creches, adults return to these creches two or more times daily to nurse. Densities, movements, and roosting associations of pups in creches were documented, and a night-vision device and infrared-sensitive video system were used to observe female-pup reunions and nursing affiliations. Densities of young (< 15 d) pups in creches averaged 4000 pups/m2. Pups moved independently of one another between milk meals. Stable roosting associations among pups were absent, and females evidently could not predict where a given pup would be relocated. Upon returning to the creche, females searched for and relocated pups using vocal and olfactory cues. Experiments with marked individuals demonstrated that females nursed the same pups on subsequent nights. These same experiments indicated that female/pup recognition was mutual and that the pup participated in reunions by moving toward its putative mother. However, pups also attempted to suckle from other females and 35 instances of apparently successful milk “theft” were observed. Observed milk theft was insufficient to account for the frequency of alloparental nursing that was estimated independently using genotype tests. The high densities of bats within roosts and the lack of stable roosting associations among individuals argue against selection for shared nursing via kin selection and/or reciprocity. Errors in pup recognition, milk-dumping by females, and adoption by mothers whose own pup had died may occur, but high pup survival to weaning suggests that adoption is rare. The estimate of alloparental nursing obtained from genotype tests may be inflated as a result of increased opportunities for milk theft caused by our disturbance of adults. Current evidence suggests that energetic costs to females of alloparental nursing and searching for pups are compensated by mutualistic benefits obtained from aggregative roosting.