Background Communal nursing in house mice is an example of cooperation where females pool litters in the same nest and indiscriminately nurse own and other offspring despite potential exploitation. The direct fitness benefits associated with communal nursing shown in laboratory studies suggest it to be a selected component of female house mice reproductive behaviour. However, past studies on communal nursing in free-living populations have debated whether it is a consequence of sharing the same nest or an active choice. Here using data from a long-term study of free-living, wild house mice we investigated individual nursing decisions and determined what factors influenced a female’s decision to nurse communally.
Results Females chose to nurse solitarily more often than expected by chance, but the likelihood of nursing solitarily decreased when females had more partners available. While finding no influence of pairwise relatedness on partner choice, we observed that females shared their social environment with genetically similar individuals, suggesting a female’s home area consisted of related females, possibly facilitating the evolution of cooperation. Within such a home area females were more likely to nest communally when the general relatedness of her available options was relatively high. Females formed communal nests with females that were familiar through previous associations and had young pups of usually less than 5 days old.
Conclusions Our findings suggest that communal nursing was not a by-product of sharing the same nesting sites, but females choose communal nursing partners from a group of genetically similar females, and ultimately the decision may then depend on the pool of options available. Social partner choice proved to be an integrated part of cooperation among females, and might allow females to reduce the conflict over number of offspring in a communal nest and milk investment towards own and other offspring. We suggest that social partner choice may be a general mechanism to stabilize costly cooperation.