Brood Parasitism and the Evolution of Cooperative Breeding in Birds

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Science  20 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6165, pp. 1506-1508
DOI: 10.1126/science.1240039

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Power in Numbers

Avian brood parasites target particular bird species to raise their offspring, sometimes at great cost to the foster family. Feeney et al. (p. 1506; see the Perspective by Spottiswoode) analyzed the global distribution of brood parasitism and found a correlation with the occurrence of cooperative breeders across multiple taxa. For example, Australian fairy wrens breed both singly and in cooperative groups, but the group breeders are better able to resist parasites than lone pairs, indicating that the prevalence of cooperative breeding may be a response to brood parasites.


The global distribution of cooperatively breeding birds is highly uneven, with hotspots inAustralasia and sub-Saharan Africa. The ecological drivers of this distribution remain enigmatic yet could yield insights into the evolution and persistence of cooperative breeding. We report that the global distributions of avian obligate brood parasites and cooperatively breeding passerines are tightly correlated and that the uneven phylogenetic distribution of cooperative breeding is associated with the uneven targeting of hosts by brood parasites. With a long-term field study, we show that brood parasites can acquire superior care for their young by targeting cooperative breeders. Conversely, host defenses against brood parasites are strengthened by helpers at the nest. Reciprocally selected interactions between brood parasites and cooperative breeders may therefore explain the close association between these two breeding systems.

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