Maternal Behavior and Offspring Outcomes

Mammalian mothers are the primary mediator of early social experience for their developing offspring.  Thus, a major focus of my research has been to understand the factors underlying natural variation in maternal behavior (e.g. offspring sex, number of offspring, female sociality, stress hormones) and how that relates to outcomes such as longevity, offspring survival, behavior, and physiology. 

Social Networks

Beyond mothers, young social mammals are exposed to a broader network of individuals.  While chimpanzee infants are often carried by and always accompanied by their mothers, bottlenose dolphin calves are physically precocious and engage in temporary long-distance separations at an early age during which they can socialize in the absence of direct maternal influence.  The results of work on the dolphins of Shark Bay, Australia suggest that dolphin calves develop social bonds and/or skills before a lack of social savvy incurs a fitness cost. In fact, male calves that are more socially integrated are more likely to survive to adulthood than those that are less socially integrated. 

Does variation in early social experience similarly influence individual outcomes in species with similar social systems?  How do differences in infant precociousness and the presence of mothers influence social development in different species?  Pursuit of comparative questions such at these in species including (but not limited to) bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees, and bonobos will provide unique insight into the development and adaptive value of social behavior.

Comparative Social Behavior

Photo credit: Sean Lee

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