Population level consequences of facultatively cooperative behaviour in a stochastic environment

Michela Busana, Dylan Z. Childs, Terrence A. Burke, Jan Komdeur, David S. Richardson, Hannah L. Dugdale

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


1. The social environment in which individuals live affects their fitness and in turn population dynamics as a whole. Birds with facultative cooperative breeding can live in social groups with dominants, subordinate helpers that assist with the breeding of others, and subordinate non-helpers. Helping behaviour benefits dominants through increased reproductive rates and reduced extrinsic mortality, such that cooperative breeding might have evolved in response to unpredictable, harsh conditions affecting reproduction and/or survival of the dominants. Additionally, there may be different costs and benefits to both helpers and non-helpers, depending on the time-scale. For example, early-life costs might be compensated by later-life benefits. These differential effects are rarely analysed in the same study.
2. We examined whether helping behaviour affects population persistence in a stochastic environment and whether there are direct fitness consequences of different life-history tactics adopted by helpers and non-helpers.
3. We parameterised a matrix population model describing the population dynamics of female Seychelles warblers Acrocephalus sechellensis, birds that display facultative cooperative breeding. The stochastic density-dependent model is defined by a (st)age structure that includes life-history differences between helpers and non-helpers and thus can estimate the demographic mechanisms of direct benefits of helping behaviour.
4. We found that population dynamics are strongly influenced by stochastic variation in the reproductive rates of the dominants, that helping behaviour promotes population persistence and that there are only early-life differences in the direct fitness of helpers and non-helpers.
5. Through a matrix population model, we captured multiple demographic rates simultaneously and analysed their relative importance in determining population dynamics of these cooperative breeders. Disentangling early-life versus lifetime effects of individual tactics sheds new light on the costs and benefits of helping behaviour. For example, the finding that helpers and non-helpers have similar lifetime reproductive outputs and that differences in reproductive values between the two life-history tactics arise only in early life suggests that overall, helpers and non-helpers have a similar balance of costs and benefits when analysing direct benefits. We recommend analysing the consequence of different life-history tactics, during both early life and over the lifetime, as analyses of these different time frames may produce conflicting results.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)224-240
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date26 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022


  • Bayesian analyses
  • cooperative breeding
  • direct fitness benefits
  • environmental stochasticity
  • group living
  • life-history tactics
  • matrix population model
  • population predictions

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