Does the early social environment prepare individuals for the future? A match-mismatch experiment in female wild cavies

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Abstract

Background: The social environment that mothers experience during pregnancy and lactation has a strong effect on the developing offspring. Whether offspring can be adaptively shaped to match an environment that is similar to the maternal one is still a major question in research. Our previous work in wild cavies showed that females whose mothers lived in a stable social environment with few social challenges during pregnancy and lactation (SE-daughters) developed different behavioral phenotypes than females whose mothers lived in an unstable social environment with frequent social challenges during pregnancy and lactation (UE-daughters). In the present study we investigated whether SE-daughters are better adapted to a stable social environment, similar to their maternal one, than are UE-daughters, for which the stable social environment represents a mismatch with their maternal one. For this purpose, we established pairs of one UE- and one SE-daughter and housed them together under stable social conditions for one week. Dominance ranks, behavioral profiles, glucocorticoid levels, cortisol responsiveness and body weight changes were compared between the groups. We hypothesized that SE-daughters fare better in a stable social setting compared to UE-daughters. Results: After one week of cohabitation in the stable social condition, UE-daughters had higher glucocorticoid levels, tended to gain less body weight within the first three days and displayed higher frequencies of energy-demanding behaviors such as rearing and digging than SE-daughters. However, there was no difference in cortisol responsiveness as well as in dominance ranks between UE- and SE-daughters. Conclusion: Higher glucocorticoid levels and less body weight gain imply that UE-daughters had higher energy demands than SE-daughters. This high energy demand of UE-daughters is further indicated by the increased display of rearing and digging behavior. Rearing implies increased vigilance, which is far too energy demanding in a stable social condition but may confer an advantage in an unstable social environment. Hence, SE-daughters seem to better match a stable social environment, similar to their maternal one, than do UE-daughters, who encountered a mismatch to their maternal environment. This data supports the environmental matching hypothesis, stating that individuals manage the best in environments that correspond to their maternal ones.

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Sangenstedt, S., Szardenings, C., Sachser, N., & Kaiser, S. (2018). Does the early social environment prepare individuals for the future? A match-mismatch experiment in female wild cavies. Frontiers in Zoology, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12983-018-0261-1

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