Kin discrimination, or the differential treatment of kin, is evident in a wide variety of taxa. The benefits and costs of kin discrimination may vary according to social and ecological conditions, causing discrimination to be context specific. We tested for context-dependent kin discrimination in the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus), a terrestrial species in which adults of both sexes defend feeding territories in which juveniles are often found. If individuals demonstrate the ability to discriminate kin from non-kin, this action would indicate that a mechanism for long-term parental care is present. Mother salamanders may provide protection for juveniles by defending territories from cannibalistic intruders or by feeding on large invertebrates that are predators of juveniles. However, mother salamanders did not significantly discriminate their offspring from unrelated neonates when simple interactions between the two were monitored or when conspecific intruders were added to chambers. Neonates did not behave significantly differently toward mothers than they did toward unrelated females during simple interactions. They also failed to discriminate between substrates that had been scented by their mothers and those that had been scented by unrelated females. When given a choice between related and unrelated neonates, however, females cannibalized unrelated neonates significantly more than their own offspring. This study suggests that kin discrimination between mothers and offspring may occur only in particular contexts, but that mothers possess the mechanism by which they are able to discriminate their offspring from unrelated neonates.
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Vol. 59 • No. 3