We studied mechanisms responsible for reproductive skew in female Alpine marmots. In each social group, only dominant females produced weaned young although subordinate females had similar body condition, were fertile as indicated by high levels of oestradiol during the mating season, and occasionally started pregnancies. During the period of gestation, dominant females initiated significantly more agonistic interactions against subordinate females, resulting in significantly increased levels of glucocorticoids and decreased levels of progesterone in subordinates. Results suggested that reproductive suppression in female Alpine marmots is mediated by the negative effects of stress (glucocorticoids) on the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. The strength of competition between subordinate and dominant females was affected by their relatedness. Dominant females attacked unrelated subordinate females more, whereas amicable behaviour was observed mainly between dominant females and their daughters. These differences could be explained by differences in indirect fitness: related subordinate females benefited from warming the offspring of the dominant female during hibernation. Reproductive suppression was apparently costly for dominant females, because their reproductive success decreased as the number of adult subordinate females in a group increased. (C) 2003 Published by Elsevier Ltd on behalf of The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.