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Do jackals use babysitters?

        Animals | Carnivores

Wild Dogs and Alloparental Care
Non-breeding adult jackals may babysit pups.
Non-breeding adult jackals may babysit pups.
©­iStockphoto/kturley

­In larger packs of jackals, nonbreeding females and sometimes older male offspring will act as babysitters for the young. In the first weeks after birth, the babysitting jackal may guard the mother and her young outside the den, alerting them to incoming predators or other dangers. The babysitter may also bring back food to the burrow, though it's a rare occurrence. This form of cooperation is called alloparental care.

After as little as three weeks, the mother may leave the young in the care of the babysitter and return to hunting. Since breeding females in a pack are stronger and more agile hunters than their nonbreeding counterparts, their hunting activity is important for the pack's survival [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri].

Jackals are the only known species of wild dog to practice alloparental care. African wild dogs, red and Arctic foxes, and gray and Ethiopian wolves also have displayed babysitting behavior as a way of ensuring pup survival until weaning. Different species may integrate various babysitting dynamics, depending on pack size, species, habitat and food abundance. For instance, the likelihood of black-backed jackal pups' survival was directly proportional to the number of helper adults in the pack; the same results didn't hold for golden jackals [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri]. Ethiopian wolf packs practice alloparental care on a larger scale with a single female producing a litter each year, and the entire pack caring for the offspring [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri].

Canid researchers have pinpointed a threshold of success for alloparental care in packs of wild dogs. If the ratio of adults to pups is too low, the pack can't spare nonbreeding adults to stick by the den instead of actively hunting or protecting pack territory. An examination of 165 canid litters calculated that two pups to every one adult was the lowest ratio that could allow for babysitting without losing resources [source: Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri].

Other mammals, including bison, elk and dolphins also incorporate forms of babysitting in family groups [source: Dunbar, Knight and Power]. Not surprisingly, monkey and ape -- not to mention human -- communities also practice female cooperative care. This phenomenon makes sense given the toll that reproduction, lactation and weaning take on the female body. Likewise, babysitting behavior not only helps ensure the survival of the young but also the female.