Is alloparenting helpful for Mednyi Island arctic foxes, Alopex lagopus semenovi?
Kruchenkova EP., Goltsman M., Sergeev S., Macdonald DW.
The Arctic Fox Alopex lagopus semenovi population on Mednyi Island is completely isolated and subsists largely by scavenging on seabird colonies, which have remained abundant and spatio-temporally predictable for many years. We compared population data at the beginning of 1976/1978 and some time after 1994-2005, finding an 85% decline in fox numbers due to disease, to assess the effect of population size on social structure. A total of 81 groups of known size and composition was observed during this 29-year period. Overall, helpers (usually non-lactating yearling females) occurred in 25.7% of groups, and in 32.4% of groups there were two or three lactating females. Female engagement in alloparental behaviour decreased, but not statistically significantly, after the decline in population density. Total food availability was apparently constant throughout the study period, and therefore, the amount available per individual was much higher later in the study. Both communally nursing females and helpers brought food and helped to guard the litter. However, the benefits of communal rearing were unclear. While cubs were left without guards significantly more rarely in the groups with an additional adult, the number of cubs weaned per lactating female was greater in groups with one (3.93 +/- 1.60), as opposed to two or three (3.06 +/- 0.92), lactating females. Survival of cubs to 1 year of age in the groups with two lactating females and/or with helpers was lower than that in the families with one lactating female without helpers (22.2% vs 32.2%). Fewer second-generation litters were born to foxes produced by composite families than to those produced by pairs. Reproductive adults producing by pairs had, on average, 1.23 (+/-1.72) second-generation litters. In groups that initially included additional adults, the average number of second-generation litters per reproductive female was 0.21 (+/-0.49) and 0.46 (+/-0.81) litters per male. Thus, according to three measures, increased group size had no apparent positive impact on reproductive success. The increased parental investment and enhanced guarding of the cubs in the larger families could be beneficial under conditions of high population density and a saturated biotope to which the island fox population was presumably adapted before the population crash in the late 1970s.