The functional significance of communal nesting and nursing is poorly understood. Female house mice often communally nest, and within these communal nests females appear to indiscriminately nurse all pups, a rare trait for any mammal. In this study, the hypothesis that communal nesting provides protection from conspecific infanticide was tested and supported in semi-natural populations of house mice. Conspecific infanticide in single-mother nests (69%, N = 412) was twice that in communal nests (33%, N = 508). Because this major benefit of communal nesting does not require communal nursing, direct benefits to communal nursing itself were tested. Most proposed benefits should result in heavier weaning weights, but no differences were found between communal and single nests in the semi-natural populations. If communal nursing is to be avoided in communal nests, dams must recognize their own pups. Retrieval tests conducted in the laboratory produced equivocal results. Dams discriminated between pups that differed in age, but not between their own and other age-matched pups. The major survival advantage of communal nesting, coupled with the failure to find nutritional advantages for communally nursed pups, supports a recent suggestion that communal nursing is an unavoidable consequence of communal nesting. This hypothesis is further strengthened by data indicating that communal nesting partners tend to be kin, thereby providing inclusive fitness benefits to communal nursing. Although costs of communal nursing were proposed and tested, no such costs were found. We also show from 15 observations of infanticide that all classes of adults (territorial and non-territorial males, pregnant and non-pregnant females) are infanticidal. These observations are in conflict with previous laboratory studies.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Animal Science and Zoology