Infant handling by female Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) at Affenberg Salem: testing functional and evolutionary hypotheses
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Assisting the genetic parents in the rearing of young, a widespread phenomenon in many birds and mammals, is usually regarded as an altruistic or mutualistic behavior. Infant handling by females other than the mother is also common in many primates, but due to high within- and between-species variation and limited knowledge about fitness consequences there is no consensus about its evolutionary and functional significance. Analysis of female infant-handling patterns and its reproductive consequences in three groups of semifree-ranging Barbary macaques revealed that nulliparous females significantly more often handled infants than parous females, but infant handling experience did not affect survival of their own first live-born offspring. Females interacted preferentially with closely related infants, but infant handling frequency improved neither infant survival nor maternal fecundity. Reciprocation of infant handling by mothers was rare. Although “aunting to death” occurred in the population, the hypothesis that infant handling serves to reduce the fitness of competitors was not supported. Limited evidence suggests that females at least sometimes use infants as strategic tools in the course of alliance formation. In concert with this poor evidence for a functional basis of the behavior, several lines of evidence support the hypothesis that infant handling evolved as a non-adaptive by-product of a strong selection for mother-offspring bonding. (1) Rates of infant handling were highest among females that experienced early infant loss. (2) Females caring for infants or yearlings of their own handled other infants significantly less often than females without dependent offspring. (3) Infant handling by females was most prevalent during the infants’ first month of life. (4) Both “aunting to death” and a successful adoption occurred irrespective of kinship relations. Although the by-product hypothesis appears to be the only one able to explain all results of this study, the apparent rarity of infant handling in non-female-bonded species suggest that kin selection is a possible alternative explanation for the evolution of female infant-handling in primates.
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