Coalitions of relatives and reproductive skew in cooperatively breeding white-winged choughs

Robert Heinsohn, Peter Dunn, Sarah Legge, Michael Double

Abstract

We used DNA fingerprinting to examine reproductive skew in cooperatively breeding white-winged choughs, Corcorax melanorhamphos, which live in groups of up to 20 individuals. Before a severe drought, groups that had been stable for multiple years were characterized by long-term monogamy involving a single breeding pair (high skew). After the drought, new groups formed from the amalgamation of multiple individuals and coalitions of relatives. At most one member of each faction succeeded in breeding, such that skew was dependent on the number of unrelated factions, and not group size. In the new groups, dominant males and females with supporting relatives were always successful. Whereas most females without support also gained breeding positions, many males without family support failed to breed. Thus subordinates gain indirect fitness by first helping related males to secure a breeding position, and then helping to raise their young. Our study demonstrates the advantage of operating in coalitions, and suggests that the acquisition of future allies may be a major benefit of helping behaviour in this species.

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