In the case of European badger mothers, they share infant care by raising infants in a group. Each mom will have something slightly different to offer. This can be a buffer against maternal stress.
When mothers are really stressed, the levels of stress hormones in their milk is accordingly high. These glucocorticoids have negative impacts on infant physiology and behavior. In addition, stressed mothers may fail to perform maternal tasks. Things like licking and grooming are very important for normal physiological and emotional development. Skipping these things altogether happens often during times of stress.
However, when many mothers are contributing care and/or milk to an infant, the stress factors from one source are diluted. This is beneficial for the infant for two reasons:
- The infant would otherwise have a steady supply of stress hormones
- The infant would potentially experience a lack of grooming and licking from its own mother
This kind of potential for immune factors or endocrine signals from many moms to have positive impacts on infant physiology makes a lot of sense. However, it hasn’t yet been widely studied.
Plural breeders, like European badger mothers, have the potential to provide and derive benefits from a wide variety of sources. Still, as with anything, those benefits need to outweigh the costs of providing care to unrelated infants or dealing with a crafty cheater.
This post is an excerpt from my book “Wild Moms: Motherhood In The Animal Kingdom.”
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