Genetic relatedness in wintering groups of house sparrows (Passer domesticus)


  • AL and VB conduct research in behavioural and evolutionary ecology of birds, using the house sparrow as a model system, and also by applying phylogenetic comparative approaches. AK is a PhD student, investigating the effects of urbanization on house sparrows’ behaviour. ZT is a graduating PhD student, interested in the evolution of social behaviour, kin selection and social network analysis. KS, BK and ZP are interested in population genetics and phylogenetics, focusing mainly on birds and insects.

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Social behaviour of group-living animals is often influenced by the relatedness of individuals, thus understanding the genetic structure of groups is important for the interpretation of costs and benefits of social interactions. In this study, we investigated genetic relatedness in feeding aggregations of free-living house sparrows (Passer domesticus) during the nonbreeding season. This species is a frequent model system for studies of social behaviour (e.g. aggression, social foraging), but we lack adequate information on the kin structure of sparrow flocks. During two winters, we ringed and observed sparrows at feeding stations, and used resightings to identify stable flock-members and to calculate association indices between birds. We genotyped the birds using seven highly polymorphic microsatellite loci, and estimated pairwise relatedness coefficients and relatedness categories (close kin vs. unrelated) by maximum likelihood method. We found that most birds were unrelated to each other in the flocks (mean ± SE relatedness coefficient: 0.06 ± 0.002), although most individuals had at least a few close relatives in their home flock (14.3 ± 0.6% of flock-mates). Pairwise association between individuals was not significantly related to their genetic relatedness. Furthermore, there was no difference between within-flock vs. between-flock relatedness, and birds had similar proportions of close kin within and outside their home flock. Finally, relatedness among members of different flocks was unrelated to the distance between their flocks. Thus, sparrow flocks were not characterized by association of relatives, nevertheless the presence of some close kin may provide opportunity for kin-biased behaviours to evolve.