Kin recognition and the ‘armpit effect’: evidence of self–referent phenotype matching

Jill M. Mateo , Robert E. Johnston


In species with multiple paternity or maternity, animals may best assess their relatedness to unfamiliar conspecifics by comparing their own phenotype(s) with those of unidentified individuals. Yet whether animals can recognize kin through self–matching is controversial. Because golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) mate multiply and can produce multiply sired litters, they were tested for their ability to use self–matching for kin recognition. Hamsters that were reared only with non–kin since birth responded differentially to odours of unfamiliar relatives and non–relatives. Postnatal association with kin was not necessary for this discrimination. Prenatal learning was unlikely because of delayed production and perception of social odours. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that a vertebrate can use its own phenotype for kin–recognition purposes without prior experience with kin. By using itself as a referent, rather than its siblings or parents, a golden hamster may be better able to direct nepotism towards the most appropriate individuals. Kin discrimination via self–inspection may be especially important in nepotistic contexts (to identify most closely related conspecifics), whereas inclusion of the phenotypes of close kin as referents may be favoured in mate–choice contexts (to identify all related individuals).