Australian fairy-wrens co-operative breeding study


Red-winged fairy wren male

From the Journal of Animal Ecology:

The role of social environment on parental care: offspring benefit more from the presence of female than male helpers

Summary

Investment in offspring depends on the costs and benefits to the carer, which can vary with sex and social status. Investment also depends on the effort of others by allowing for compensation (load-lightening), with biparental care studies showing that this depends on the state and type of the other carer. By contrast, studies on cooperative breeders have solely focussed on the effects of group size rather than its composition (i.e. social environment).

Here we propose and provide the first test of the ‘Social Environment’ hypothesis, that is, how the characteristics (here the sex) of other helpers present in the group affect parental care and how this in turn affects offspring fitness in cooperatively breeding red-winged fairy-wrens (Malurus elegans).

Breeders provisioned nestlings at a higher rate than helpers, but there was no sex difference in provisioning rate. Compensation to increasing group size varied little with sex and status, but strongly depended on social environment. All group members reduced their provisioning rates in response to an increasing number of male (load-lightening), but not female helpers (additive care).

As a result, nestlings received more food and grew faster in the presence of female helpers. The increased nestling growth did convey a fitness advantage due to a higher post-fledging survival to adulthood.

Our study provides the first evidence that parental care can depend on social environment. This could be an important overlooked aspect to explain variation in parental care in cooperative breeders in general and in particular the enormous variation between the sexes, which we reveal in a literature overview.

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