Royal Society Publishing

Kin discrimination and female mate choice in the naked mole-rat Heterocephalus glaber

F. M. Clarke, C. G. Faulkes

Abstract

Naked mole–rats are fossorial, eusocial rodents that naturally exhibit high levels of inbreeding. Persistent inbreeding in animals often results in a substantial decline in fitness and, thus, dispersal and avoidance of kin as mates are two common inbreeding avoidance mechanisms. In the naked mole–rat evidence for the former has recently been found. Here we address the latter mechanism by investigating kin recognition and female mate choice using a series of choice tests in which the odour, social and mate preferences of females were determined. Discrimination by females appears to be dependent on their reproductive status. Reproductively active females prefer to associate with unfamiliar males, whereas reproductively inactive females do not discriminate. Females do not discriminate between kin and non–kin suggesting that the criterion for recognition is familiarity, not detection of genetic similarity per se. In the wild, naked mole–rats occupy discrete burrow systems and dispersal and mixing with non–kin is thought to be comparatively rare. Thus, recognition by familiarity may function as a highly efficient kin recognition mechanism in the naked mole–rat. A preference by reproductively active females for unfamiliar males is interpreted as inbreeding avoidance. These findings suggest that, despite an evolutionary history of close inbreeding, naked mole–rats may not be exempt from the effects of inbreeding depression and will attempt to outbreed should the opportunity arise.

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