M B V Bell

University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, United Kingdom

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Publications (8)39.69 Total impact

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    ABSTRACT: In many animal societies, a small proportion of dominant females monopolize reproduction by actively suppressing subordinates. Theory assumes that this is because subordinate reproduction depresses the fitness of dominants, yet the effect of subordinate reproduction on dominant behaviour and reproductive success has never been directly assessed. Here, we describe the consequences of experimentally preventing subordinate breeding in 12 groups of wild meerkats (Suricata suricatta) for three breeding attempts, using contraceptive injections. When subordinates are prevented from breeding, dominants are less aggressive towards subordinates and evict them less often, leading to a higher ratio of helpers to dependent pups, and increased provisioning of the dominant's pups by subordinate females. When subordinate breeding is suppressed, dominants also show improved foraging efficiency, gain more weight during pregnancy and produce heavier pups, which grow faster. These results confirm the benefits of suppression to dominants, and help explain the evolution of singular breeding in vertebrate societies.
    Nature Communications 07/2014; 5:4499. · 10.74 Impact Factor
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    Behavioral Ecology 04/2012; 23(3). · 3.16 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Social species show considerable variation in the extent to which dominant females suppress subordinate reproduction. Much of this variation may be influenced by the cost of active suppression to dominants, who may be selected to balance the need to maximize the resources available for their own offspring against the costs of interfering with subordinate reproduction. To date, the cost of reproductive suppression has received little attention, despite its potential to influence the outcome of conflict over the distribution of reproduction in social species. Here, we investigate possible costs of reproductive suppression in banded mongooses, where dominant females evict subordinates from their groups, thereby inducing subordinate abortion. We show that evicting subordinate females is associated with substantial costs to dominant females: pups born to females who evicted subordinates while pregnant were lighter than those born after undisturbed gestations; pups whose dependent period was disrupted by an eviction attained a lower weight at independence; and the proportion of a litter that survived to independence was reduced if there was an eviction during the dependent period. To our knowledge, this is the first empirical study indicating a possible cost to dominants in attempting to suppress subordinate breeding, and we argue that much of the variation in reproductive skew both within and between social species may be influenced by adaptive variation in the effort invested in suppression by dominants.
    Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 07/2011; 279(1728):619-24. · 5.29 Impact Factor
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    S J Hodge, M B V Bell, M A Cant
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    ABSTRACT: Reproductive events in animal societies often show a high degree of temporal clustering, but the evolutionary causes of this synchronization are poorly understood. Here, we suggest that selection to avoid the negative effects of competition with other females has given rise to a remarkable degree of birth synchrony in the communal-breeding banded mongoose (Mungos mungo). Within banded mongoose groups, births are highly synchronous, with 64 per cent of females giving birth on exactly the same night. Our results indicate that this extreme synchrony arises because offspring suffer an increased risk of infanticide if their mother gives birth before other females, but suffer in competition with older littermates if their mother gives birth after them. These findings highlight the important influence that reproductive competition can have for the evolution of reproductive synchrony.
    Biology letters 02/2011; 7(1):54-6. · 3.43 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Ecological conditions can influence decisions relating to antipredator behaviour through impacts on the likelihood of detecting predators and the ability to hear vocalizations. Previous studies of antipredator behaviour have tended to focus on foragers, whose vigilance behaviour may be confounded by the type of food they are eating, and on receivers in vocal communication networks. We examined the impact of habitat and wind conditions on the behaviour of sentinels, individuals that suspend their own foraging to adopt a raised position to scan for danger while groupmates continue feeding, and that produce a variety of calls used by foragers to adjust their antipredator behaviour. Sentinels of the pied babbler, Turdoides bicolor, a cooperatively breeding bird, started guarding sooner and guarded for longer in long grass compared to more open habitats, and also initiated sentinel bouts sooner in high wind, probably because of the increased predation risk in such circumstances. Sentinels also selected positions that were both lower and closer to the foraging group when it was windy, potentially improving transmission of vocal signals that are valuable to foragers. Our results demonstrate that sentinel behaviour can be influenced by extrinsic factors, as well as the intrinsic factors previously shown, and suggest that ecological variation may affect decisions bearing both selfish and cooperative benefits.
    Animal Behaviour 01/2011; 82(6):1435-1441. · 3.07 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Wherever individuals perform cooperative behaviours, each should be selected to adjust their own current contributions in relation to the likely future contributions of their collaborators. Here, we use the sentinel system of pied babblers (Turdoides bicolor) to show that individuals anticipate contributions by group mates, adjusting their own contribution in response to information about internal state broadcast by others. Specifically, we show that (i) short-term changes in state influence contributions to a cooperative behaviour, (ii) individuals communicate short-term changes in state, and (iii) individuals use information about the state of group mates to adjust their own investment in sentinel behaviour. Our results demonstrate that individual decisions about contributions to a cooperative effort can be influenced by information about the likely future contribution of others. We suggest that similar pre-emptive adjustments based on information obtained from collaborators will be a common feature of cooperative behaviour, and may play an important role in the development of complex communication in social species.
    Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 11/2010; 277(1698):3223-8. · 5.29 Impact Factor
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    A R Ridley, N J Raihani, M B V Bell
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    ABSTRACT: Sentinels are a conspicuous feature of some cooperative societies and are often assumed to provide benefits in terms of increased predator detection. Similar to other cooperative behaviours, variation in investment in sentinel behaviour should reflect variation in the benefits of such behaviour. However, evidence for this is inconclusive: to date experiments have manipulated the cost of sentinel behaviour, and considerations of changes in the benefits of sentinel activity on investment patterns are lacking. Here, we experimentally manipulated the benefits of sentinel behaviour in the cooperatively breeding pied babbler (Turdoides bicolor) to assess whether this had any impact on sentinel activity. We simulated the presence of an unseen predator using playbacks of heterospecific alarm calls, and the presence of an actual predator using a model snake. In both cases, the increase in perceived predation risk caused an increase in sentinel activity, demonstrating that investment in sentinel activity increases when the benefits are greater.
    Biology letters 02/2010; 6(4):445-8. · 3.43 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: In risky environments, where threats are unpredictable and the quality of information about threats is variable, all individuals face two fundamental challenges: balancing vigilance against other activities, and determining when to respond to warning signals. The solution to both is to obtain continuous estimates of background risk, enabling vigilance to be concentrated during the riskiest periods and informing about the likely cost of ignoring warnings. Human surveillance organizations routinely produce such estimates, frequently derived from indirect cues. Here we show that vigilant individuals in an animal society (the pied babbler, Turdoides bicolor) perform a similar role. We ask (i) whether, in the absence of direct predator threats, pied babbler sentinels react to indirect information associated with increased risk and whether they communicate this information to group mates; (ii) whether group mates use this information to adjust their own vigilance, and whether this influences foraging success; and (iii) whether information provided by sentinels reduces the likelihood of inappropriate responses to alarm calls. Using playback experiments, we show that: (i) sentinels reacted to indirect predator cues (in the form of heterospecific alarm calls) by giving graded surveillance calls; (ii) foragers adjusted their vigilance in reaction to changes in surveillance calls, with substantial effects on foraging success; and (iii) foragers reduced their probability of responding to alarm calls when surveillance calls indicated lowered risk. These results demonstrate that identifying attacks as they occur is only part of vigilance: equally important is continuous surveillance providing information necessary for individuals to make decisions about their own vigilance and evasive action. Moreover, they suggest that a major benefit of group living is not only the increased likelihood of detecting threats, but a marked improvement in the quality of information available to each individual.
    Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 07/2009; 276(1669):2997-3005. · 5.29 Impact Factor

Publication Stats

92 Citations
39.69 Total Impact Points


  • 2009–2014
    • University of Cambridge
      • Department of Zoology
      Cambridge, England, United Kingdom
  • 2012
    • The University of Edinburgh
      • Institute of Evolutionary Biology
      Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
  • 2010
    • University of Cape Town
      • Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
      Kaapstad, Western Cape, South Africa