physiological ageing and reproductive strategies in cooperatively breeding meerkats
My work with wild meerkat societies is the focus of my current research. This work falls into two broad threads:
(i) Ageing in wild meerkat societies
Like humans, meerkats live in social groups. And like humans, the social environment can be supportive and beneficial, or stressful and conflict-filled. Meerkats' social lives can therefore have a positive or negative effect on their health and ageing rates. My work aims to clarify what aspects of the social environment are linked with accelerated ageing, and what aspects are linked with delayed ageing. To do this, I investigate variation in telomere lengths. Telomeres are protective caps on chromosomes, which degrade slowly over time. Telomere degradation is linked with rapid ageing, whereas stable telomeres are associated with long, healthy lives.
(ii) Reproductive strategies in subordinate female meerkats
In meerkat societies, the dominant female is the primary breeder, but subordinate females frequently become pregnant. These subordinates' pregnancies can end well (with a healthy litter) or badly (with eviction, abortion, or infanticide). I am investigating the optimal strategies for subordinate females, which may allow them to breed successfully, minimize conflict with other group members, and (perhaps) avoid exposure to oxidative stress and shortened telomeres (see above).