Experimental peripheral administration of oxytocin elevates a suite of cooperative behaviours in a wild social mammal

Joah R. Madden, Tim H. Clutton-Brock


The evolution and expression of different forms of cooperative behaviour (e.g. feeding, guarding, sentinel duties, etc.) are usually studied independently, with few studies considering them as a single syndrome. However, studies investigating individuals' investment across a suite of different behaviours reveal that they are correlated, suggesting a single mechanism determining the evolution and expression of cooperative behaviours. A hormonal mechanism could achieve this, and one possibility is oxytocin (OT), which affects several prosocial or alloparental behaviours independently. We show, using a double-blind experiment, that peripheral administration of OT to social, free-living meerkats Suricata suricatta elevates a suite of cooperative behaviours. Treated individuals increase their contributions to communal, cooperative activities (digging, guarding, pup-feeding and associating with pups) and decrease initiation of aggressive interactions, compared with a saline control. This suggests that different forms of cooperative behaviour form a single syndrome with a common causal basis. If our peripherally administered OT acts in the same way as the naturally released hormone, then a general tendency to prosociality may be modulated by this hormonal system. Therefore, it may be difficult for an individual to decouple expression of cooperative behaviours that provide the practitioner with benefits from those that provide the recipient with benefits. It may also explain why social species typically exhibit a suite of cooperative behaviours, without having to invoke independent evolution of each.

  • Received August 4, 2010.
  • Accepted September 16, 2010.
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