Behavioural change during dispersal and its relationship to survival and reproduction in a cooperative breeder

Natasha D. Harrison, Nino Maag, Paul J. Haverkamp, André Ganswindt, Marta B. Manser, Tim H. Clutton-Brock, Arpat Ozgul, Gabriele Cozzi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Web of Science)


The ability of dispersing individuals to adjust their behaviour to changing conditions is instrumental in overcoming challenges and reducing dispersal costs, consequently increasing overall dispersal success. Understanding how dispersers' behaviour and physiology change during the dispersal process, and how they differ from resident individuals, can shed light on the mechanisms by which dispersers increase survival and maximise reproduction. By analysing individual behaviour and concentrations of faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (fGCM), a stress-associated biomarker, we sought to identify the proximate causes behind differences in survival and reproduction between dispersing and resident meerkats Suricata suricatta. We used data collected on 67 dispersing and 108 resident females to investigate (a) which individual, social and environmental factors are correlated to foraging and vigilance, and whether the role of such factors differs among dispersal phases, and between dispersers and residents; (b) how time allocated to either foraging or vigilance correlated to survival in dispersers and residents and (c) the link between aggression and change in fGCM concentration, and their relationship with reproductive rates in dispersing groups and resident groups with either long-established or newly established dominant females. Time allocated to foraging increased across dispersal phases, whereas time allocated to vigilance decreased. Time allocated to foraging and vigilance correlated positively and negatively, respectively, with dispersers' group size. We did not find a group size effect for residents. High proportions of time allocated to foraging correlated with high survival, and more so in dispersers, suggesting that maintaining good physical condition may reduce mortality during dispersal. Furthermore, while subordinate individuals rarely reproduced in resident groups, the conception rate of subordinates in newly formed dispersing groups was equal to that of their dominant individuals. Mirroring conception rates, in resident groups, fGCM concentrations were lower in subordinates than in dominants, whereas in disperser groups, fGCM concentrations did not differ between subordinates and dominants. Our results, which highlight the relationship between behavioural and physiological factors and demographic rates, provide insights into some of the mechanisms that individuals of a cooperative species can use to increase overall dispersal success.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2637-2650
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number11
Early online date14 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021
Externally publishedYes


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