Weaned age variation in the Virunga mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei): influential factors
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- Eckardt, W., Fawcett, K. & Fletcher, A.W. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (2016) 70: 493. doi:10.1007/s00265-016-2066-6
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Weaning marks an important milestone during life history in mammals indicating nutritional independence from the mother. Age at weaning is a key measure of maternal investment and care, affecting female reproductive rates, offspring survival, and, ultimately, the viability of a population. Factors explaining weaned age variation in the endangered mountain gorilla are not yet well understood. This study investigated the impact of group size; group type (one-male versus multimale); offspring sex; and maternal age, rank, and parity on weaned age variation in the Virunga mountain gorilla population. The status of nutritional independence was established in 69 offspring using long-term suckling observations. A Cox-regression with mixed effects was applied to model weaned age and its relationship with covariates. Findings indicate that offspring in one-male groups are more likely to be weaned earlier than offspring in multimale groups, which may reflect a female reproductive strategy to reduce higher risk of infanticide in one-male groups. Inferior milk production capacity and conflicting resource allocation between their own and offspring growth may explain later weaning in primiparous mothers compared to multiparous mothers. Sex-biased weaned age related to maternal condition defined by parity, rank, and maternal age will be discussed in the light of the Trivers-Willard hypothesis. Long-term demographic records revealed no disadvantage of early weaning for mother or offspring. Population growth and two peaks in weaned age within the Virunga population encourage future studies on the potential impact of bamboo shoots as a weaning food and other environmental factors on weaning.