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Divorce in cooperatively breeding long–tailed tits: a consequence of inbreeding avoidance?

B. J. Hatchwell , A. F. Russell , D. J. Ross , M. K. Fowlie

Abstract

The decision of whether to divorce a breeding partner between reproductive attempts can significantly affect individual fitness. In this paper, we report that 63% of surviving pairs of long–tailed tits Aegithalos caudatus divorced between years. We examine three likely explanations for the high divorce rate in this cooperative breeder. The ‘better option’ hypothesis predicts that divorce and re–pairing increases an individual's reproductive success. However, divorcees did not secure better partners or more helpers and there was no improvement in their reproductive success following divorce. The ‘inbreeding avoidance’ hypothesis predicts that females should disperse from their family group to avoid breeding with philopatric sons. The observed pattern of divorce was consistent with this hypothesis because, in contrast to the usual avian pattern, divorce was typical for successful pairs (81%) and less frequent in unsuccessful pairs (36–43%). The ‘forced divorce’ hypothesis predicts that divorce increases as the number of competitors increases. The pattern of divorce among failed breeders was consistent with this hypothesis, but it fails to explain the overall occurrence of divorce because divorcees rarely re–paired with their partners' closest competitors. We discuss long–tailed tits' unique association between divorce and reproductive success in the context of dispersal strategies for inbreeding avoidance.

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