Wildlife TV

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Mating for Life Part 2: Monogamy in Mammals

on July 27, 2014

In the previous post we saw how birds are, generally speaking, the most faithful animals to their mating partners, but which other animals are monogamous? Although loyalty to a partner is reasonably common (although varied) in the bird world, it is far less common elsewhere, for example, only 3% of mammal species show any sort of monogamy.

  • Which mammals mate for life?

One mammal species that was thought to have mated for life was the siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus), along with some other species of gibbon. Intensive research has shown that they actually practice something called ‘social monogamy‘ as opposed to sexual monogamy, in other words, they are swingers (and not just from tree to tree)! Siamangs pair off and form close social bonds with their partners, often spending their whole lives together and raising families together, however, they quite frequently will mate with other individuals they meet during their routine travels around their forest home, apparently with no consequence.

Siamangs in Duet

Siamangs (Symphalangus syndactylus) form lifelong partnerships which are reinforced by ‘singing’ together, sometimes accompanied by the rest of the family. Photo Credits.

The prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) is a small North American rodent that is commonly studied for its monogamous behaviour. These voles do indeed seem to mate for life, living together, sharing household duties and responsibility for the offspring, however, they too cannot seem to resist the temptation to mate with desirable individuals that seem to come their way.

Family of Prairie Voles

Prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) are monogamous and share parental responsibilities. Photo Credits.

The mammal that wins the title of ‘most faithful to their partner‘ is Azara’s night monkey (Aotus azarae); this small South American primate mates for life and appears to never stray. An 18 year long term genetic study of night monkey infants found that all the youngsters were the offspring of both parents, none of them were step-siblings meaning that the parents never mated (or at least conceived) with any other partners.

Azara's Night Monkey

Azara’s night monkey (Aotus azarae) are nocturnal and so hard to photograph well, but lengthy genetic studies on this species have show that they are perhaps the mammals which are most faithful to their partners. Photo Credits.

Many mammals have complex social systems and it can be hard to label or categorise a species’ mating technique. Male lions (Panthera leo), for example, will take control of a pride and then will be the sole mating partner for each of the females within that pride, however, he is not exclusive to any one of them; the male is not faithful to one partner whilst the female is but they are all socially bonded none the less. Other mammals have a form of social structure that is dependant on monogamy such as African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) and meerkats (Suricata suricatta) where social order is kept by an alpha couple; a male and female who are partners for life and the only members of the group who are permitted to reproduce.

African Wild Dogs

Groups of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) have an alpha pair who are the only two permitted to breed, the rest of the group cooperatively raise the young. Photo Credits.

Although monogamy is rare in mammals, there are a few notable examples as we have seen. However, animal behaviour is rarely ‘black and white’ and though some animals stick with a partner, they are not always entirely faithful. In the next post, we will look at invertebrates which practice some form of monogamy.

Much love,

-Nick

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