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Nursing gerbils unravel benefit of multiple mothers in collective mammals

Date:
January 9, 2013
Source:
Princeton University
Summary:
In mammals such as rodents that raise their young as a group, infants will nurse from their mother as well as other females. Ecologists have long thought this lets newborns stockpile antibodies to various diseases, but experimental proof has been lacking until now.

An 18 day old baby gerbil. Gerbils are born with their eyes closed, and don't open them until they are 17 to 20 days old. This gerbil had just opened her eyes for the first time shortly before this photo was taken.
Credit: iStockphoto/Sarah Bossert

In mam­mals such as rodents that raise their young as a group, infants will nurse from their mother as well as other females, a dynamic known as allo­suck­ling. Ecol­o­gists have long hypoth­e­sized that allo­suck­ling lets new­borns stock­pile anti­bod­ies to var­i­ous dis­eases, but the exper­i­men­tal proof has been lack­ing until now.

An in-press report in the jour­nal Mam­malian Biol­ogy found that infant Mon­go­lian ger­bils that suck­led from females given sep­a­rate vac­cines for two dif­fer­ent dis­eases wound up with anti­bod­ies for both illnesses.

The find­ings not only demon­strate the poten­tial pur­pose of allo­suck­ling, but also pro­vide the first frame­work for fur­ther study­ing it in the wild by using trace­able anti­bod­ies, said first author Romain Gar­nier, a post­doc­toral researcher in Prince­ton University's Depart­ment of Ecol­ogy and Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­ogy. Gar­nier con­ducted the research with Syl­vain Gan­don and Thierry Boulin­ier of the Cen­ter for Func­tional and Evo­lu­tion­ary Ecol­ogy in France, and with Yan­nick Chaval and Nathalie Char­bon­nel at the Cen­ter for Biol­ogy and Man­age­ment of Pop­u­la­tions in France.

Gar­nier and his coau­thors admin­is­tered an influenza vac­cine to one group of female ger­bils, and a vac­cine for Bor­re­lia burgdor­feri -- the bac­te­r­ial agent of Lyme dis­ease -- to another group. Once impreg­nated, female ger­bils from each vac­cine group were paired and, as the ger­bils do in nature, kept sep­a­rate from the male ger­bils to birth and rear their young. In the wild, females can choose which young to nurse and infant ger­bils can like­wise choose which female to suckle. In the typ­i­cal lab, how­ever, one male, one female and their young are housed together, the researchers wrote.

When screened upon birth, all the infant ger­bils had no detectable anti­bod­ies against influenza while one had anti­bod­ies against B. burgdor­feri, accord­ing to the paper. But after eight days of nurs­ing, all the infants con­tained high lev­els of anti­bod­ies for both influenza and B. burgdor­feri, sug­gest­ing that the females nursed the young -- their own and those of the other female -- evenly. These results sug­gest that allo­suck­ling is indeed intended to expose new­born ani­mals to a host of antibodies.

This ben­e­fit sheds light on a pecu­liar arrange­ment in coop­er­a­tive mam­mals that ecol­o­gists have puz­zled over, the authors wrote. In social species, females usu­ally fall into dom­i­nant or sub­or­di­nate groups with the sub­or­di­nate females typ­i­cally involved in tend­ing to the young pro­duced by dom­i­nant females. Yet, in many cases, sub­or­di­nate females are "allowed" to breed. Gar­nier and his col­leagues sug­gest that the poten­tially larger anti­body pool avail­able through nurs­ing might be one of the rea­sons why.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Princeton University. The original article was written by Mor­gan Kelly. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Romain Garnier, Sylvain Gandon, Yannick Chaval, Nathalie Charbonnel, Thierry Boulinier. Evidence of cross-transfer of maternal antibodies through allosuckling in a mammal: Potential importance for behavioral ecology. Mammalian Biology - Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.mambio.2012.11.004

Cite This Page:

Princeton University. "Nursing gerbils unravel benefit of multiple mothers in collective mammals." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 January 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130109110610.htm>.
Princeton University. (2013, January 9). Nursing gerbils unravel benefit of multiple mothers in collective mammals. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 2, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130109110610.htm
Princeton University. "Nursing gerbils unravel benefit of multiple mothers in collective mammals." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130109110610.htm (accessed August 2, 2014).

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