Reproductive Suppression in Subordinate, Non-Breeding Female Damaraland Mole-Rats: Two Components to a Lifetime of Socially Induced Infertility

N. C. Bennett, C. G. Faulkes, A. J. Molteno

Abstract

The Damaraland mole-rat Cryptomys damarensis exhibits an extreme reproductive division of labour. Reproduction in the colony is restricted to a single breeding pair, resulting from a two-fold control: (i) a reduced pituitary synthesis and/or secretion of luteinizing hormone leading to a block to ovulation in non-reproductive females; and (ii) a strong inhibition to breeding with familar kin. Circulating basal concentrations of luteinizing hormone as well as luteinizing hormone levels measured in response to a single exogenous gonadotrophin releasing hormone challenge, were significantly lower in non-reproductive females in the presence of the reproductive female than those in colonies lacking a reproductive female. Urinary progesterone concentrations before the removal of the reproductive female were significantly higher in non-reproductives than the post removal values. Behavioural studies from sib-sib and non-sib pairings provide evidence for a strong incest avoidance, probably resulting from an inhibition of breeding with familiar colony members. A total of four pairings of non-sibs resulted in copulatory activity and eventual conception. In contrast, four couples of sib-sib combinations failed to produce any sexual activity or offspring. Thus, suppression of reproduction in these non-reproductive, subterranean bathyergids is complicated by the masking effect of familiarity that prevents incest, in addition to the physiological inhibition of fertility in the presence of the reproductive female.

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