21 Dec 2015

We recently introduced you to the science work we do here at Chester Zoo – and told you about our own endocrinology lab where we monitor our animal’s hormones. We also mentioned that we don’t just analyse our own animal’s hormones, we also work with other scientists conducting hormone analysis for their research in wild animals.

We’ve been working with scientists from the University of Exeter for a number of years on their banded mongoose research project. Banded mongooses are a close relative of the meerkat and are found across Central and Eastern Africa. They live in large, social groups between five and 40 individuals. The mongooses studied in this project are in Uganda and have been studied by researchers from the university for over 20 years.

young mongoose in Uganda, Credit Jennifer Sanderson
Young mongoose in Uganda. Photo credit: Jennifer Sanderson

A recent study has investigated the effects of stress on banded mongoose mothers and the survival of their pups. Banded mongooses live in social groups with some individuals more dominant than others, this causes competition between females within the group. Banded mongoose females usually get pregnant at the same time and give birth on the same day.

This study used ultrasound machines to study the pregnant females and faecal samples were collected and analysed at our endocrinology lab. Researchers found that when a banded mongoose invests heavily to care for mongoose pups it experiences an increase in circulating stress hormones or ‘glucocorticoids’. These high stress levels meant that their pups were less likely to survive.

Jennifer Sanderson observes the behaviour of wild banded mongoose in Uganda, credit Faye Thompson
Jennifer Sanderson observes the behaviour of wild banded mongoose in Uganda. Photo credit: Faye Thompson

It could be that the dominant females may be stressing out the lower ranking ones during pregnancy to potentially increase the chances of their own pups surviving. This study shows that even though it appears that the mongooses are breeding cooperatively, that in fact the females are subtly competing with each other, and being a low ranking females can affect pup development.

This study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and European Research Council (ERC).

L. Sanderson, H. J. Nichols, H. H. Marshall, E. I. K. Vitikainen, F. J. Thompson, S. L. Walker, M. A. Cant, A. J. Young (2015) Elevated glucocorticoid concentrations during gestation predict reduced reproductive success in subordinate female banded mongooses. Biology Letters 11, 20150620