Individuals within groups of cooperatively breeding species may partition reproduction, with the dominant pair often taking the largest share. The dominant's ability to reproductively control subordinates may depend on differences in competitive ability, due to, e.g. body size differences, but may also depend on the number of same-sex competitors inside the group. We tested experimentally whether subordinates reproduce more when these subordinates are large or when a second subordinate of the same sex need to be controlled by the dominants, using the cooperatively breeding cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher. Dominant pairs were assisted by a large and a small unrelated subordinate; sexes of these fish were varied in a full-factorial design (giving four treatments). Dominant males lost significantly more parentage to the large subordinate male when a small subordinate male was also present, compared to when a small subordinate female was present. However, subordinate paternity was generally low and did not significantly curb total dominant male reproductive output, which was more affected by the sizes and numbers of reproductive females present inside his group. Dominant female maternity, clutch sizes and total output did not depend on the treatments. Subordinate–subordinate reproduction was virtually absent (one out of 874 offspring). Female subordinates were more likely to provide care for their own broods. In contrast, male subordinates did not adjust their level of care to their parentage. Variability in female subordinate alloparental brood care was particularly high, with females showing more care than males in general. We also detected effects of growth rate and food ration on parentage independent of the treatments, most notably: (i) a trade-off between dominant male growth rate and paternity; (ii) a decrease in dominant male paternity with increasing food ration; (iii) a positive effect of growth rate on paternity in small males. We conclude that dominant males should be sensitive to the number and sizes of subordinate males present in their group, particularly when these subordinates are not helpful or grow fast, and food is plentiful. Dominant females should be less sensitive, because female subordinates do not appear to impose reproductive costs and can be helpful through alloparental brood care.
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