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Dispersal Decreases Survival but Increases Reproductive Opportunities for Subordinates in a Cooperative Breeder

In most socially structured populations, the formation of new groups depends on the survival and reproduction of dispersing individuals. Quantifying vital rates in dispersers, however, is difficult because of the logistic challenges of following wide-ranging animals. Here, using data from free-ranging meerkats (Suricata suricatta), we estimate survival and reproduction of dispersing females and compare these estimates to data for established residents. Meerkat groups consist of a dominant pair and several subordinate helpers. Female helpers are evicted from their resident groups by the dominant female, allowing her to monopolize reproduction, and evicted females may form small dispersing coalitions. We show that, as in established resident groups, one female is behaviorally dominant in parties of dispersing females. During dispersal and the first 4 months after new group formation, survival is lower for all females compared with established resident groups. At the same time, subordinates in disperser groups have higher birth rates than those in established groups, which rarely breed successfully. This may partly offset the survival costs of dispersal to subordinate females. Further studies of dispersal based on direct observation of dispersing animals are needed to explore the costs and benefits of dispersal in species with contrasting breeding systems.