1. Cooperatively breeding birds are thought to be especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, in part because dispersal is typically restricted for one sex, increasing the likelihood of inbreeding. Knowledge of dispersal is essential to conservation efforts, but is often hampered by our inability to measure its frequency and distance when dispersal is infrequent and difficult to observe.
2. Disrupted dispersal is a purported cause of decline in the Australian grey-crowned babbler (Pomatostomus temporalis). Both sexes of offspring delay dispersal for up to several years to help parents raise subsequent broods, yet little else is known about the dispersal of this cooperatively breeding woodland bird.
3. As both sexes appear to help, but only male helpers boost fledgling production, we hypothesized that males would be the more philopatric sex in this species, and that female grey-crowned babblers would disperse over greater distances.
4. To ensure reliable determination of sex and minimize bias towards detecting short-distance dispersal events, we combined molecular-based sexing and analyses of population genetic structure using polymorphic microsatellite loci with observational data obtained over multiple field seasons.
5. Observations of banded birds showed only infrequent fission of groups or short-distance dispersal (mean = 854 m), but no apparent sex-bias in these patterns.
6. There was significant genetic differentiation between social groups, but not between the sexes. Spatial genetic autocorrelation analysis of breeders revealed a random distribution of genotypes across the study area for both sexes. Thus, contrary to expectations, we found no genetic evidence for restricted dispersal or for sex-biased dispersal over the 85-km scale of this study, indicating that effective dispersal occurs over greater distances and more frequently than recoveries of banded birds indicated.
7. We conclude that while constraints on independent breeding encourage high rates of philopatry, incest avoidance nonetheless drives high rates of dispersal by both sexes. In fragmented habitat, the dispersal dynamics of this cooperatively breeding species are unlikely to render them particularly vulnerable to genetic consequences such as inbreeding, but may lead to increased group dissolution.