Fine-scale genetic structure and dispersal in cooperatively breeding apostlebirds


Iain Woxvold, Fax: +61 38344 7909; E-mail:


In cooperatively breeding species, restricted dispersal of offspring leads to clustering of closely related individuals, increasing the potential both for indirect genetic benefits and inbreeding costs. In apostlebirds (Struthidea cinerea), philopatry by both sexes results in the formation of large (up to 17 birds), predominantly sedentary breeding groups that remain stable throughout the year. We examined patterns of relatedness and fine-scale genetic structure within a population of apostlebirds using six polymorphic microsatellite loci. We found evidence of fine-scale genetic structure within the study population that is consistent with behavioural observations of short-distance dispersal, natal philopatry by both sexes and restricted movement of breeding groups between seasons. Global FST values among breeding groups were significantly positive, and the average level of pairwise relatedness was significantly higher for individuals within groups than between groups. For individuals from different breeding groups, geographical distance was negatively correlated with pairwise relatedness and positively correlated with pairwise FST. However, when each sex was examined separately, this pattern was significant only among males, suggesting that females may disperse over longer distances. We discuss the potential for kin selection to influence the evolution and maintenance of cooperative breeding in apostlebirds. Our results demonstrate that spatial genetic structural analysis offers a useful alternative to field observations in examining dispersal patterns of cooperative breeders.