The maternal social environment shapes offspring growth, physiology, and behavioural phenotype in guinea pigs.
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Prenatal conditions influence offspring development in many species. In mammals, the effects of social density have traditionally been considered a detrimental form of maternal stress. Now their potential adaptive significance is receiving greater attention.Sex-specific effects of maternal social instability on offspring in guinea pigs (Cavia aperea f. porcellus) have been interpreted as adaptations to high social densities, while the effects of low social density are unknown. Hence, we compared morphological, behavioural and physiological development between offspring born to mothers housed either individually or in groups during the second half of pregnancy.Females housed individually and females housed in groups gave birth to litters of similar size and sex-ratios, and there were no differences in birth weight. Sons of individually-housed mothers grew faster than their sisters, whereas daughters ofgroup-housed females grew faster than their brothers, primarily due to an effect on growth of daughters. There were few effects on offspring behaviour. Baseline cortisol levels in saliva of pups on day 1 and day 7 were not affected, but we saw a blunted cortisol response to social separation on day 7 in sons of individually-housed females and daughters of group-housed females. The effects were consistent across two replicate experiments.The observed effects only partially support the adaptive hypothesis. Increased growth of daughters may be adaptive under high densities due to increasedfemale competition, but it is unclear why growth of sons is not increased under low social densities when males face less competition from older, dominant males. The differences in growth may be causally linked to sex-specific effects on cortisol response, although individual cortisol response and growth were not correlated, and various other mechanisms are possible. The observed sex-specific effects on early development are intriguing, yet the potential adaptive benefits and physiological mechanisms require further study.
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