Behavioral and endocrine correlates of reproductive failure in social aggregations of captive wolverines (Gulo gulo)


Fredrik Dalerum, Department of Zoology, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +46-8-16-40 01; Fax: +46-8-16-77-15


Sociality in mammals is often viewed as a dichotomy, with sociality contrasted against solitariness. However, variation within these broad categories may have strong effects on individual fitness. For example, reproductive suppression of social subordinates is generally associated with group living, but suppression may also occur in solitary species if the behavioral and physiological processes involved can be modulated by the demographic environment. To investigate whether behavioral and physiological traits that normally are associated with group living might be latent even in a solitary species, we explored the level of sociality and investigated causes and mechanisms of reproductive failure in female wolverines Gulo gulo that experienced a highly aggregated social environment in captivity. Behaviorally, females showed low levels of aggression and intermediate levels of social interactions. Reproductive failure seemed to have been related to low social rank and to have occurred between ovulation and implantation in 13 out of 15 breeding attempts. However, three of eight females observed to mate produced offspring, indicating that no individual female fully managed to monopolize breeding. Reproductive failure was not related to elevated levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones. Rather, elevated glucocorticoid levels during the mating season were associated with successful reproduction. We suggest that social tendencies and physiological mechanisms mediating reproductive suppression may be viewed as reaction norms to the social environment. We further suggest that the social flexibility of solitary carnivores might be greater than is commonly observed, due to ecological constraints that may limit aggregation.