Maternal investment tactics in superb fairy-wrens

A F Russell, N E Langmore, Janet Gardner, R M Kilner

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47 Citations (Scopus)


In cooperatively breeding species, parents often use helper contributions to offspring care to cut their own costs of investment (i.e. load-lightening). Understanding the process of load-lightening is essential to understanding both the rules governing parental investment and the adaptive value of helping behaviour, but little experimental work has been conducted. Here we report the results of field experiments to determine maternal provisioning rules in cooperatively breeding superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus). By manipulating carer: offspring ratios, we demonstrate that helpers allow females to reduce the rate at which they provision their brood. Female reductions, however, were less than that provided by helpers, so that chicks still received food at a faster rate in the presence of helpers. Despite this, chicks fed by parents and helpers were not heavier than those provisioned by parents alone. This is because maternal load-lightening not only occurs during the chick provisioning stage, but also at the egg investment stage. Theoretically, complete load-lightening is predicted when parents value themselves more highly than their offspring. We tested this idea by presenting mothers with a choice between reducing their own levels of care and increasing investment in their offspring. We found that mothers preferred to cut their contributions to brood care, just as predicted. Our experiments help to explain why helper effects on offspring success have been difficult to detect in superb fairy-wrens, and suggest that the accuracy with which theoretical predictions of parental provisioning rules are matched in cooperative birds depends on measuring maternal responses to helper presence at both the egg and chick stages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29 - 36
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1630
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes

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