We have begun an intensive series of investigations into the environmental and endocrine mechanisms regulating cooperative breeding in a semi-arid tropical environment. A colour-marked population of white-browed sparrow weavers (Plocepasser mahali) was studied at a field site near Nyamaluma Camp, Luangwa Valley, Zambia (13dG S). This species breeds from October to April, although some clutches may be found as early as August and young may be fed until May.
Non-disruptive techniques were employed to monitor annual cycles of gonadal development, body mass and fat reserves, and small blood samples were collected to measure circulating levels of reproductive hormones and corticosterone. All individuals were released after sampling and the social and reproductive activities recorded by systematic behavioural observations. Each individual could thus be identified as: (1) a breeding adult; (2) a related helper (i.e. offspring of the breeding male and female within the group); or (3) a non-related (=invader) helper (these birds helped defend territory but did not help feed young; they were not related to the breeding pair and usually originated from outside the group).
Breeding males had larger testes and higher levels of testosterone than either related helpers or invader helpers. In females, all status groups had follicles up to 2 mm in diameter, but only breeding females ovulated. There were no differences in plasma levels of reproductive hormones among different status females, except for higher circulating luteinizing hormone (LH) in invader female helpers during the first part of the breeding season. Although plasma levels of testosterone were highest in breeding males, the maximum titres were two orders of magnitude less than in males of passerine species from temperate regions. Furthermore, injections of a peptide hormone GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) increased plasma LH levels in both males and females, and were followed by rises in testosterone levels only in males, but not over the normal maximum seen in February. GnRH-induced high levels of LH did not affect testosterone concentrations in the blood of females.
Results obtained thus far indicate that the hormonal control of aggression in white-browed sparrow weavers is different from that predicted by investigations on north temperate species. Whether these phenomena are typical of tropical species, particularly cooperative breeders, remains to be determined. Since most of the world's species of birds live in the tropics, and a substantial fraction of them breed cooperatively, more investigations are needed to establish the hormonal basis of reproductive behaviour and cooperative breeding. Given the baseline data already collected, the white-browed sparrow weaver will be a useful model.