Background: Fat deposits enable a female mammal to bear the energy costs of offspring production and thus greatly influence her reproductive success. However, increasing locomotor costs and reduced agility counterbalance the fitness benefits of storing body fat. In species where costs of reproduction are distributed over other individuals such as fathers or non-breeding group members, reproductive females might therefore benefit from storing less energy in the form of body fat.
Results: Using a phylogenetic comparative approach on a sample of 87 mammalian species, and controlling for possible confounding variables, we found that reproductive females of species with allomaternal care exhibit reduced annual variation in body mass (estimated as CV body mass), which is a good proxy for the tendency to store body fat. Differential analyses of care behaviours such as allonursing or provisioning corroborated an energetic interpretation of this finding. The presumably most energy-intensive form of allomaternal care, provisioning of the young, had the strongest effect on CV body mass. In contrast, allonursing, which involves no additional influx of energy but distributes maternal help across different mothers, was not correlated with CV body mass.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that reproducing females in species with allomaternal care can afford to reduce reliance on fat reserves because of the helpers’ energetic contribution towards offspring rearing.