Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1114–1123
Social immune systems comprise immune defences mounted by individuals for the benefit of others (sensuCotter & Kilner 2010a). Just as with other forms of immunity, mounting a social immune response is expected to be costly but so far these fitness costs are unknown. We measured the costs of social immunity in a sub-social burying beetle, a species in which two or more adults defend a carrion breeding resource for their young by smearing the flesh with antibacterial anal exudates. Our experiments on widowed females reveal that a bacterial challenge to the breeding resource upregulates the antibacterial activity of a female’s exudates, and this subsequently reduces her lifetime reproductive success. We suggest that the costliness of social immunity is a source of evolutionary conflict between breeding adults on a carcass, and that the phoretic communities that the beetles transport between carrion may assist the beetle by offsetting these costs.