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Abstract

Females in several ungulates transfer milk to non-filial (NF) offspring, in a process known as allonursing. This behavior is less common in monotocous species, including most ungulates, and it has been associated with parasitic behavior of calves or mothers who have lost their own offspring. To examine whether the calves ‘steal’ milk from the females or whether females fail to discriminate their own calves in guanacos, allonursing behavior was observed. If milk theft drives allonursing, mothers should reject NF offspring, they should search for their own calves, and calves attempting to suckle from alien mothers should adopt parallel (as opposed to the anti-parallel) position during allonursing. Alternatively, if allonursing is caused by mothers unable to discriminate own offspring, mothers are not expected to reject NF offspring, and alien calves should use parallel and antiparallel position similarly when allonursing. Allonursing was investigated during the first 3 mo of lactation in two groups of captive guanacos composed of 15 and 14 mother-calf pairs, respectively. While 40% and 62.5% of mothers in groups 1 and 2 performed allonursing, high individual variation prevailed; some females exhibited this behavior infrequently (4.1% and 6.5 % in groups 1 and 2). The rejection rate to NF nursing attempts was threefold higher than the rejection rate to filial nursing attempts. The occurrence of nursing to NF was associated to a parallel posture by the calves. Our findings suggest that ‘milk theft’ is a more plausible hypothesis to explain allonursing in guanacos than ‘misdirected parental care’.