Two of a Kind or a Full House? Reproductive Suppression and Alloparenting in Laboratory Mice

PLoS One. 2016 May 5;11(5):e0154966. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0154966. eCollection 2016.


Alloparenting, a behavior in which individuals other than the actual parents act in a parental role, is seen in many mammals, including house mice. In wild house mice, alloparental care is only seen when familiar sibling females simultaneously immigrate to a male's territory, so in the laboratory, when a pair of unfamiliar female wild mice are mated with a male, alloparenting does not occur because one female will typically be reproductively suppressed. In contrast, laboratory mice are assumed to alloparent regardless of familiarity or relatedness and are therefore routinely trio bred to increase productivity. Empirical evidence supporting the presence of alloparental care in laboratory mice is lacking. Albino and pigmented inbred mice of the strain C57BL/6NCrl (B6) and outbred mice of the stock Crl:CF1 (CF1) were used to investigate alloparenting in laboratory mice since by mating pigmented and albino females with albino males of the same stock or strain, maternal parentage was easily determined. We housed pairs (M:F) or trios (M:2F) of mice in individually ventilated cages containing nesting material and followed reproductive performance for 16 weeks. Females in trios were tested to determine dominance at the start of the experiment, and again 5 days after the birth of a litter to determine if a female's dominance shifted with the birth of pups. Results showed a significant and expected difference in number of offspring produced by B6 and CF1 (p < 0.0001). Pigmented mice nursed and nested with albino pups and vice-versa, confirming empirical observations from many that group nesting and alloparenting occurs in unrelated laboratory mice. When overall production of both individual mice and cages was examined, reproductive suppression was seen in trio cages. Dominance testing with the tube test did not correlate female reproduction with female dominance in a female-female dyad. Due to the reproductive suppression noted in trios, on a per-mouse basis, pair mating outperformed trio mating (p = 0.02) when the measure was weaned pups/female/week. No infanticide was seen in any cages, so the mechanism of reproductive suppression in trio matings may occur before birth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Reproduction / physiology*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Weaning

Grants and funding

The authors received no specific funding for this work. Two of the authors, BNG and KPC were employed by Charles River at the time the work was completed and currently maintain consulting relationships with Charles River. The funder provided support in the form of salaries for authors BNG and KPC, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.