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New research shows social monogamy evolved as result of competition

Posted July 30, 2013

Social monogamy, where one breeding female and one breeding male are closely associated with each other over several breeding seasons, appears to have evolved as a mating strategy, new research reveals. It was previously suspected that social monogamy resulted from a need for extra parental care by the father.


The comparative study, by University of Cambridge researchers Dieter Lukas and Tim Clutton-Brock, shows that the ancestral system for all mammalian groups is of females living in separate ranges with males defending overlapping territories, and that monogamy evolved where males were unable to monopolise and defend multiple females. The research is published in the journal Science.

For the study, the researchers classified all 2500 mammalian species for which information exists as either solitary, socially monogamous or group-living (several breeding females share a common range and either eat or sleep together). They showed that nine per cent of mammals are socially monogamous, including a few rodents, a number of primates, and some carnivores, like jackals, wolves, and meerkats.

Previously, it had been suggested that monogamy evolved as a result of selection for paternal support in raising offspring (for example, if the female alone could not provide enough food or adequately defend the young). This study shows that paternal care usually evolved after monogamy was already present.

This advance in understanding was, says Lukas, due to the volume of information they collected and the availability of genetic information that allowed the researchers to determine the sequence in which different traits evolved.

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