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Abstract

It has been suggested that the sex-dependent pattern of mother-pup interaction that occurs early in infancy can affect some aspects of the animal's behaviour repertoire in adulthood. The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of litter gender composition (LGC) on subsequent maternal behaviour and aggression in the female house mouse. Albino mouse litters were reduced at birth to six pups according to two conditions: FM (3 females and 3 males) and FF (all females). At weaning (day 21), all mice were rehoused in unisexual groups. At adulthood (70–90 days) the females were mated and litters culled at birth to 6 pups (3 females and 3 males). On days 2, 4, and 6 after delivery the females were tested for maternal behaviour (10 min) and retrieval of pups. On day 6, at the end of the recording of maternal behaviour, the females were also tested for maternal aggression towards a strange adult male conspecific (5-min exposure). In absence of differences in maternal behaviour scores, FM females showed shorter latencies for retrieval of the first pup on postnatal days 2 and 4. Maternal aggression was also significantly affected by the two conditions. FM females showed higher scores of both duration and frequency of aggressive grooming, defensive upright postures, fleeing and of the number of attacks. FF females spent more time self-grooming, crouching, and on nest. These results support the hypothesis that a series of factors, such as olfactory, tactile, and acoustic stimulation provided by the pups, the variation of maternal behaviour depending upon LGC, and the qualitative and/or quantitative variation in social interaction with the opposite sex in infancy, contribute to the broad interindividual plasticity to cope in different environmental situations.