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Keywords:

  • cooperative breeding;
  • extra-pair paternity;
  • kin selection;
  • Parus humilis;
  • relatedness

Social monogamy is nearly ubiquitous across avian taxa, but evidence from a proliferation of studies utilizing molecular paternity analysis suggests that sexual monogamy is the rare exception rather than the rule (Griffith et al. 2002). Efforts to explain the prevalence of extra-pair paternity (EPP) have largely focused on the potential fitness benefits for offspring genetic quality, as females are less likely to benefit directly from seeking extra-pair mates. In particular, there has been considerable interest in the degree to which EPP may represent an adaptive female strategy to avoid inbreeding (or outbreeding) depression when paired with a highly related (or unrelated) social mate (Kempenaers 2007). Others have argued that, because relatives share many genes identical by descent, females might increase their own inclusive fitness by providing additional breeding opportunities to genetically related males (Waser et al. 1986; Kokko & Ots 2006). Thus, in the absence of significant inbreeding depression, pursuing EPP with relatives should be favoured by kin selection, although there exist few unambiguous empirical examples of such preferences in the literature. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Wang & Lu (2011) present an analysis of mating patterns with respect to genetic relatedness of social and extra-pair partners in the ground tit (Parus humilis), a facultative cooperative breeder in which socially monogamous pairs occasionally form cooperative groups with unpaired helper males (Fig. 1). Consistent with the predictions of the kin-selection hypothesis, females in both bi-parental and cooperative groups preferentially engaged in extra-pair matings with relatives, irrespective of relatedness to their social mates, and while suffering no apparent costs of inbreeding depression in their progeny. These findings have several exciting implications for our understanding of avian mating system diversity and the evolution of cooperative breeding.

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Figure 1.  In both (a) bi-parental and (b) cooperative breeding groups of ground tits (Parus humilis), extra-pair mates were more closely related to one another than were social mates, or than would be expected by chance. Photograph credits Xin Lu.

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