Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 60, Issue 4, pp 582–588 | Cite as

Family insurance: kin selection and cooperative breeding in a solitary primate (Microcebus murinus)

  • Manfred EberleEmail author
  • Peter M. Kappeler
Original Article


Lactation imposes substantial physiological costs on mothers and should therefore not be directed towards foreign offspring. Such allonursing, however, is common in mammal species that share roosts. Hypotheses to explain allonursing among such plural breeders include misdirected parental care, milk evacuation, brood parasitism, reciprocity, and kin selection. The necessary behavioral data, in combination with data on kinship and kin recognition, have rarely been available to distinguish among these explanations, however. In this study, we provide evidence for cooperative nursing and adoption by plural-breeding females in a nocturnal primate, the gray mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus), in which females forage solitarily during the night, but form day-time sleeping groups with one to two other females. We observed 34 resident females in an 8 ha study area in Kirindy Forest, Madagascar, over three consecutive annual breeding seasons and determined genetic relationships among all members of this population. Five sleeping groups of adult females were filmed inside their roosts during one breeding season after females gave birth. The composition of groups changed substantially across years, but they always consisted of close maternal relatives. All females within a group gave birth to one to three infants. They regularly transferred only their own offspring among roosting sites, demonstrating an ability to discriminate between their own and other’s offspring, but they regularly groomed and nursed related offspring other than their own and adopted related dependent young after their mother’s death. Kin selection may therefore be the main selective force behind cooperative breeding among these closely related females with a high mortality risk, providing each of them with family insurance.


Cooperative breeding Cooperation Kin selection Family Primates Microcebus 



We thank the late Prof. Berthe Rakotosamimanana (Département de Paléontologie et d’Anthropologie Biologique de l’Université d’Antananarivo), Prof. Olga Ramilijaona and Dr. Daniel Rakotondravony (Département de Biologie Animale, Université d’Antananarivo), Dr. Lucien Rakotozafy (Parc Botanique et Zoologique Tsimbazaza Antananarivo), the Commission Tripartite and the CAFF of the Direction des Eaux et Forêts, the CFPF Morondava, Prof. Jörg U. Ganzhorn, Prof. Hans Zischler, and Andreas Hapke for their authorization or support of this study. Thanks to Tiana Andrianjanahary for assistance in the field, and to Joanna Setchell and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. This work was financially supported by the Deutsches Primatenzentrum (DPZ) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, Ka 1082/5-1, 2).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department Behavioral Ecology and SociobiologyGerman Primate CenterGöttingenGermany
  2. 2.Department Sociobiology and AnthropologyUniversity of GöttingenGöttingenGermany

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