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Maternal stress effects on infant development in wild Verreaux's sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi)
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology  (IF2.98),  Pub Date : 2021-09-25, DOI: 10.1007/s00265-021-03085-2
Malalaharivony, Hasina S., Fichtel, Claudia, Heistermann, Michael, Kappeler, Peter M.


Maternal effects mediated by nutrients or specific endocrine states of the mother can affect infant development. Specifically, pre- and postnatal maternal stress associated with elevated glucocorticoid (GC) output is known to influence the phenotype of the offspring, including their physical and behavioral development. These developmental processes, however, remain relatively poorly studied in wild vertebrates, including primates with their relatively slow life histories. Here, we investigated the effects of maternal stress, assessed by fecal glucocorticoid output, on infant development in wild Verreaux’s sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi), a group-living Malagasy primate. In a first step, we investigated factors predicting maternal fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGCM) concentrations, how they impact infants’ physical and behavioral development during the first 6 months of postnatal life as well as early survival during the first 1.5 years of postnatal life. We collected fecal samples of mothers for hormone assays and behavioral data of 12 infants from two birth cohorts, for which we also assessed growth rates. Maternal fGCM concentrations were higher during the late prenatal but lower during the postnatal period compared to the early/mid prenatal period and were higher during periods of low rainfall. Infants of mothers with higher prenatal fGCM concentrations exhibited faster growth rates and were more explorative in terms of independent foraging and play. Infants of mothers with high pre- and postnatal fGCM concentrations were carried less and spent more time in nipple contact. Time mothers spent carrying infants predicted infant survival: infants that were more carried had lower survival, suggesting that they were likely in poorer condition and had to be cared for longer. Thus, the physical and behavioral development of these young primates were impacted by variation in maternal fGCM concentrations during the first 6 months of their lives, presumably as an adaptive response to living in a highly seasonal, but unpredictable environment.

Significance statement

The early development of infants can be impacted by variation in maternal condition. These maternal effects can be mediated by maternal stress (glucocorticoid hormones) and are known to have downstream consequences for behavior, physiology, survival, and reproductive success well into adulthood. However, the direction of the effects of maternal physiological GC output on offspring development is highly variable, even within the same species. We contribute comparative data on maternal stress effects on infant development in a Critically Endangered primate from Madagascar. We describe variation in maternal glucocorticoid output as a function of ecological and reproductive factors and show that patterns of infant growth, behavioral development, and early survival are predicted by maternal glucocorticoids. Our study demonstrates how mothers can influence offspring fitness in response to challenging environmental conditions.