Children's book explores why animals stay home to help

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A mystery that has puzzled evolutionary biologists for years -- why some animals postpone breeding in order to stay home and help their families -- may actually make good evolutionary sense.

Cornell University biologist Paul Sherman figured young human animals would be intrigued, too, so he drew on the latest research about the phenomenon of cooperative breeding -- including some of his own groundbreaking studies -- to co-author a new children's book, Animal Baby Sitters (Franklin Watts, September 2001).

"People seem to expect animals to look out only for themselves. When we see what looks like unselfish, altruistic behavior -- animals that postpone starting their own families to help care for others -- we become extremely curious," says Sherman. A professor of neurobiology and behavior, Sherman wrote the new book with his next-door neighbor, children's book author Gail Jarrow.

"It took repeated studies of cooperative breeding in different species, plus a theoretical breakthrough known as kin selection, to figure out the puzzle of reproductive altruism," Sherman continues. "It now appears that when opportunities to disperse and breed independently are limited, individuals stay at home. This is how extended families form. By assisting their parents in raising little siblings, animal baby sitters are helping perpetuate their own genes at a time in their lives when they would be unable to rear their own offspring. They also may be learning parenting skills that will come in handy when their turn to breed finally comes."

The scientific data in Animal Baby Sitters come straight from investigators doing field and laboratory research, Sherman and Jarrow emphasize -- experts like Glen Woolfenden, who has studied Florida scrub jays for 30 years to learn, among other things, why scrub jay parents get most of the baby-sitting help from their older sons; and John Hoogland, a leading specialist on the prairie dog

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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