Testosterone treatment suppresses paternal care in superb fairy-wrens, Malurus cyaneus, despite their concurrent investment in courtship

Anne Peters, Andrew Cockburn, Ross Cunningham

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Courtship displays and paternal care in male birds are generally thought to be mutually exclusive, because testosterone, necessary for stimulation of sexual behaviours, suppresses paternal behaviours. Superb fairy-wrens, Malurus cyaneus, are unusual in that males concurrently engage in courtship and paternal care. Fairy-wrens live in stable socially monogamous pairs with 0-4 subordinate male helpers. Both helper and dominant males provide care whenever it is required but continue courtship throughout the period of care as most fertilisations are extra-group and females are multi-brooded. To examine the role of testosterone in this trade-off, we compared testosterone levels in males of different social status, while they had dependent nestlings, and determined the effect of testosterone treatment on provisioning rates of pairs. Testosterone levels were lower in subordinate helpers, although these do not provide more paternal care than dominant males. Conversely, testosterone levels were similar in dominant males with or without helpers, although as the number of helpers increases males invest substantially less in nestling care and more in extra-group courtship. Although testosterone levels are high, irrespective of paternal duties, experimental testosterone treatment of males resulted in a large (65%) reduction in nestling feeding rates. Surprisingly, there was no indication that females compensated for this reduction in provisioning, suggesting that females might assume a constant male contribution to offspring care. We conclude that during nestling provisioning, male fairy-wrens maintain testosterone at an individual level that does not interfere with parental duties, while allowing high investment in extra-group courtship.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)538-547
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Female compensation
  • Hormones
  • Life history trade-offs
  • Parental behaviour
  • Reproductive allocation

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