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Do Primary Males Physiologically Suppress Subordinate Males? An Experiment in a Cooperatively Breeding Passerine


L. Brouwer, Evolutionary Ecology Group, School of Botany and Zoology, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia. E-mail:


Knowing why certain individuals refrain from reproduction is fundamental to our understanding of the evolution of cooperative breeding. Although many studies have focused on the role of life history and ecological factors, the proximate mechanisms underlying this behaviour have received considerably less attention. We determined the natural variation in plasma testosterone (T) level and cloacal protuberance (CP) size – an indication of sperm storage – in successfully reproducing primary male and in reproductively inactive subordinate male Seychelles warblers (Acrocephalus sechellensis). Primary males had significantly higher T levels during female’s fertile period and significantly larger CPs throughout the breeding season than subordinate males. To test if the lower T levels of subordinates were caused by their social status per se, we experimentally promoted subordinates to primary males, by permanent removal of primary males from their territories. The experimentally promoted males increased T production and CP sizes significantly, suggesting former suppression by primary males. However, T levels of the promoted males only marginally increased. As this could not be explained by their younger age, we conclude that recovery from social suppression may take a substantial time period.