Meerkats have a sinister side, banishing females that produce offspring and killing her young.
Published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that their infanticide serves an evolutionary purpose – to boost reproductively among the alpha pair.
Meerkats, which are part of the mongoose family, live in groups with a dominant breeding pair and adult helpers.
The alpha pair banishes any other females that reproduce and kill their grandchildren so they have plenty of resources to help rear their own pups.
The researchers found that this behaviour, also found in other animals including ants and bees, is an effective method of protecting reproduction.
Scientists gave contraceptive injections to adult female helpers living in 12 different market colonies in the Kalahari Desert, meaning they could not have pups for six months.
Over this period, the alpha females were less aggressive and hunted more, which resulted in them gaining more weight and having bigger pups.
"When subordinates are prevented from breeding, dominants are less aggressive towards subordinates and evict them less often, leading to a higher ratio of helpers to dependent pups, and increased provisioning of the dominant's pups by subordinate females," the authors wrote.
"When subordinate breeding is suppressed, dominants also show improved foraging efficiency, gain more weight during pregnancy and produce heavier pups, which grow faster. These results confirm the benefits of suppression to dominants, and help explain the evolution of singular breeding in vertebrate societies."
Commenting on the findings, Matt Bell, from the University of Edinburgh, said: "The meerkat way of life is a paradox, in which alpha females will attack their daughters, banish them from the group and infanticise their offspring.
"Our study reveals that dominant animals are worse off when subordinates in their group try to breed – explaining why they brutally suppress others much of the time."