Can but don’t: olfactory discrimination between own and alien offspring in the domestic cat
Mammalian maternal care usually comes at a large energetic cost. To maximize their fitness, mothers should preferentially care for their own offspring. However, the majority of studies of mother–offspring recognition have focused on herd- or colony-living species and there is little information on maternal discrimination in more solitary-living species. Olfaction has been found to play a major role in mother–offspring recognition across various taxa. Therefore, our aim was to study this in a species evolved from a solitary-living ancestor, the domestic cat. We asked whether cat mothers distinguish between their own and alien offspring when providing maternal care, and whether cat mothers use olfactory cues in the offspring discrimination process. Results of Experiment 1 showed that cat mothers do not discriminate between own and alien young when retrieving them to the nest. They treated own and alien young similarly with respect to latency and order of retrieval. However, the results of Experiments 2 and 3, where we used an olfactory habituation-discrimination technique, showed that mothers were able to distinguish between the odours of their own and alien kittens. We discuss what ecological and/or behavioural factors might influence a mother’s decision when faced with discriminating between own and alien young, and why mothers might not discriminate between them when they are able to do so. Our findings support the view that maternal care alone should not be used as a measure of offspring recognition, and equal maternal care of own and alien young should not be immediately interpreted as an inability to discriminate between them.