doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.56 Published online 24 April 2014
Animal behaviour researchers have reported the first case of 'alloparental' care among stray dogs in India, meaning a 'grandmother' in a family of street dogs helping her 'daughter' raise the grandpups by caring for them . The grandmother, in this case, was seen providing altruistic care such as security, affiliative interactions like play and 'allogrooming' by offering regurgitated food to the puppies.
"This is not only a novel observation in a natural habitat for dogs, but also opens up the possibility of studying how interactions with adult group members in the early life might shape the dynamics of dog groups," lead researcher Anindita Bhadra told Nature India.
Alloparental care is the care provided by adults other than the parents. Such care is reported in a wide spectrum of species, from insects to humans. This study was on free-ranging dogs in India, who have a dynamic social system and, unlike grey wolves (their cooperatively breeding ancestors), all adults in a dog group have equal mating opportunities. This at times leads to the birth of multiple litters within an existing dog group.
Bhadra and colleagues at the Behaviour and Ecology Lab, Department of Biological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata studied a group of free-ranging dogs in Kolkata. They provide the first field observations of alloparental care made on the dog group where a bitch provided care to her grandpups, through interactions other than suckling. This allomaternal care acted as a supplement to the care provided by the mother, and was thus beneficial to the pups.
Though mothers are usually portrayed as self-sacrificing individuals who can go to any extreme to protect and nurture their offspring, animal behaviour experts actually categorise mothers as selfish — they provide care to their offspring because they are "programmed" to do so, as this ensures the propagation of their genes, making them "fit" in the Darwinian sense.
The scientists say the research also opens up the possibility to study how kinship might affect inter and intra-group interactions.