Banded mongooses live in social groups where pups are consistently cared for one-to-one by a single adult known as an “escort” – not their mother or father. The pups inherit lifelong habits and behavioural traits from these role models.
However, pups within the same litter are not equal: some pups spend all day with their escort while others are left to fend for themselves from an early age.
The study led by Dr Emma Vitikainen from the University of Helsinki, Professor Michael Cant from the University of Exeter, and Harry Marshall from the University of Roehampton suggests that the pups that receive the most nurturing and attentive escorting in their first couple of months in life are the ones that breed most successfully – meaning the ‘silver spoon effect’ extends into future generations.
For female pups, the amount of care received had the biggest impact to how successfully they reproduced throughout their adult life, over and above effects of larger size.
The findings offer a fascinating insight into how helping behaviour shapes the life history of social mammals including humans, that evolved in cooperative family groups in which offspring were cared for by helpers such as grandparents or older sibs, as well as their parents.
“We know that care and resources received early on in life have profound effects on health and wellbeing in humans. Our study, based on a 17-year dataset, shows that also in mongooses, these early differences accumulate, with bigger pups receiving more care and doing better overall,” Emma Vitikainen says.
Michael Cant, Emma Vitikainen, Faye Thompson and Harry Marshall. Live long and prosper: durable benefits of early-life care in banded mongooses. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Volume 374, issue 1770. 25 February 2019, doi: 10.1098/rstb.2018.0114