Adults providing food to offspring are predicted to allocate care in a way that maximizes their fitness. Providers across taxa have been demonstrated to show preferences for particular young depending on the degree of relatedness, offspring sex or size. However, little is known about the cues providers use to discriminate among individual offspring. In the banded mongoose, Mungos mungo, a cooperatively breeding carnivore, dependent pups form long-lasting and exclusive associations with particular adults, their 'escorts', and receive the majority of care from these individuals. We performed acoustic analyses of pup distress calls and escort contact calls and found that pup distress calls are highly and escort contact calls are moderately individualized. In subsequent playback experiments, both pups and escorts were more responsive to calls of their association partners than to calls of other individuals. These results suggest that pups and escorts recognize each other vocally and mutually and that both pups and providers contribute to the maintenance of the pup-escort associations. Pups may benefit from vocal recognition of their escorts since this reduces the time spent alone, vulnerable to predators and without being fed. Escorts may be more responsive to their associated pup's calls than to another pup's calls because they preferentially care for this particular individual and/or because they were primed by constant exposure to its calls. © 2007 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.
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