Transmission of Self-Medicative Behaviour from Mother to Offspring in Sheep

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Animal Behavior

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Herbivores challenged by diets with high concentrations of tannins learn by individual experience to self-select medicinal compounds such as polyethylene glycol (PEG), which neutralizes the negative postingestive effects of tannins. We investigated the transmission of this acquired self-medicative behaviour from mother to offspring. One group of ewes (experienced, N = 8) was conditioned to associate the beneficial effects of PEG after consuming a tannin-rich diet. Ewes ingested a meal of high-tannin food and were then offered PEG. Subsequently, ewes ingested the same tannin-rich meal and were then offered a food (grape pomace; control) that did not have the medicinal effects of PEG. After conditioning, the experienced group and a naïve group of ewes (N = 8) were given a choice between the high-tannin food, PEG and grape pomace. Experienced ewes showed higher intake and preference for PEG than did naïve ewes (P < 0.05). Subsequently, experienced and naïve ewes with their naïve lambs, as well as a group of naïve lambs without their mothers (N = 8), were exposed to the tannin-rich diet, PEG and grape pomace. Lambs were then tested for their ability to self-medicate with PEG by offering them a choice between the tannin-rich diet, PEG and grape pomace. Lambs from experienced and naïve mothers showed a higher preference for PEG than did lambs exposed without their mothers (P = 0.05). Thus, the presence of the mother (experienced or naïve) was important for naïve lambs to learn about the medicinal benefits of PEG. We conclude that the mother’s presence per se may increase the efficiency of creating new knowledge, such as preference for a medicine, within a group, beyond transmitting and maintaining this knowledge across generations.

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