Lifelong fitness benefits of early-life care in banded mongooses

I am a co-author on new paper on early-life effects in banded mongooses with Emma Vitikainen, Faye Thompson and Mike Cant. In this study we show that that mongooses who receive more care as pups are heavier at maturity, which in turn has its own positive effect on lifetime reproductive success.

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Banded mongooses are cooperative breeders, meaning that all adults in the group contribute to caring for the pups. In banded mongooses this takes for the form of one-to-one care with one adult ‘escort’ caring for one pup (see picture). These escorts provide the pups with food and protection and previous research form the Banded Mongoose Research Project has shown that escorting has immediate benefits for pup weight and survival. This new paper shows that these positive effects of caring last into adulthood. This ties in neatly with a study we published last year showing that escorts influence their pups’ foraging behaviour into adulthood. We’ve also shown that the environmental conditions a pups experiences in early-life have lifelong fitness effects.

This and the previous studies emphasises the growing understanding in animals and humans of how important an individual’s period of early development is for the rest of their lives. This study in particular highlights the importance of early social care in determining health, reproduction and survival in adulthood.

This is part of a theme issue in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on early-life effects in evolutionary biology and evolutionary medicine that I and colleagues guest edited.

Philosophical Transactions issue - Developing differences: early-life effects and evolutionary medicine

I am one of the guest editors on an issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that is out today The issue is called “Developing differences: early-life effects and evolutionary medicine” and brings together theoretical and empirical researchers from evolutionary biology and medicine to tackle the question of why and how the conditions that you experience in early-life have such an important influence on you in later life.

We all intuitively know that our childhood has a very important effect on things like how we behave, who we are and how healthy we are as adults. However, why should this be the case if it can lead to poor outcomes? Evolution is a very powerful force (and it’s had a lot of time to try things out) and can result in all sorts of adaptations. These can range from the incredible camouflage abilities of cuttlefish and octopus to ants whose sole purpose is to be a door for the rest of the colony. So, why have life histories across the natural world evolved so that conditions an individual experiences during its development can have such long-lasting effects into its adulthood, and even on its own offspring? This question of great interest to evolutionary biologists, and also medical researchers who are findings that early life conditions play an important role in predicting someone’s susceptibility to non-communicable diseases like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (e.g see DOHAD, the Society for Developmental Origins of Health and Disease),

This issue of Phil. Trans. came out of an interdisciplinary workshop funded by NERC that I co-organised in Falmouth, UK back in September 2015. I guest edited the issue with Bram Kuijper, Mark Hanson, Emma Vitikainen, Susan Ozanne and Mike Cant.