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Female-Biased Helping in a Cooperatively Breeding Bird: Female Benefits or Male Costs?


Dean A. Williams, Marine Genomics Laboratory, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami, FL 33149, USA.


There is often a sex bias in helping effort in cooperatively breeding species with both male and female helpers, and yet this phenomenon is still poorly understood. Although sex-biased helping is often assumed to be correlated with sex-specific benefits, sex-specific costs could also be responsible for sex-biased helping. Cooperatively breeding brown jays (Cyanocorax morio) in Monteverde, Costa Rica have helpers of both sexes and dispersal is male-biased, a rare reversal of the female-biased dispersal pattern often seen in birds. We quantified helper contributions to nestling care and analyzed whether there was sex-biased helping and if so, whether it was correlated with known benefits derived via helping. Brown jay helpers provided over 70% of all nestling feedings, but they did not appear to decrease the workload of breeders across the range of observed group sizes. Female helpers fed nestlings and engaged in vigilance at significantly higher levels than male helpers. Nonetheless, female helpers did not appear to gain direct benefits, either through current reproduction or group augmentation, or indirect fitness benefits from helping during the nestling stage. While it is possible that females could be accruing subtle future direct benefits such as breeding experience or alliance formation from helping, future studies should focus on whether the observed sex bias in helping is because males decrease their care relative to females in order to pursue extra-territorial forays. Explanations for sex-biased helping in cooperative breeders are proving to be as varied as those proposed for helping behavior in general, suggesting that it will often be necessary to quantify a wide range of benefits and costs when seeking explanations for sex-biased helping.