The energetics of lactation in cooperatively breeding meerkats Suricata suricatta

Proc Biol Sci. 2002 Oct 22;269(1505):2147-53. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2002.2108.


Species may become obligate cooperative breeders when parents are unable to raise their offspring unassisted. We measured the daily energy expenditure of mothers, helpers and offspring during peak lactation in cooperatively breeding meerkats Suricata suricatta using the doubly labelled water technique. Lactating mothers expended more energy per day than allo-lactating subordinate females, non-lactating females or suckling offspring. Metabolizable energy intakes of lactating mothers were calculated from isotope-based estimates of offspring milk energy intake, and were not significantly different from the previously suggested maximal limit for mammals. Allo-lactating females were the only category of animals that lost weight during the period of study, probably because they spent more time babysitting than non-lactating females. Daily energy expenditure (DEE) of lactating mothers increased with litter size but decreased with the number of helpers. Calculations show that for every 10 helpers, even in the absence of allo-lactators, mothers are able to reduce their DEE during peak lactation by an amount equivalent to the energy cost of one pup. These results indicate that helpers have beneficial energetic consequences for lactating mothers in an obligate cooperatively breeding mammal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Suckling
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Breeding
  • Carnivora / metabolism
  • Carnivora / physiology*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Female
  • Lactation / metabolism*
  • Litter Size / physiology
  • Male
  • Water / metabolism


  • Water