Testing the environmental buffering hypothesis of cooperative breeding in the Seychelles warbler

Mirjam J. Borger, David S. Richardson, Hannah Dugdale, Terry Burke, Jan Komdeur

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4 Citations (Scopus)
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Species are facing environmental challenges caused by rapidly changing environments. Globally, extreme weather events, like droughts or extreme rainfall, are increasing in frequency. Natural selection usually acts slowly, while adaptations through phenotypic plasticity are limited. Therefore, organisms may utilise other mechanisms to cope with such rapid change. Cooperative breeding is hypothesised to be one such mechanism, as helpers could increase survival probabilities of offspring, especially in harsh years. Rainfall is a cue for onset of breeding in many tropical species, to ensure young are born when food abundance is highest. Using 21 years of data, we investigate the effect of rainfall on social behaviour and life history in the insectivorous Seychelles warbler (Acrocephalus sechellensis), a facultative cooperative breeder. We found that low rainfall is associated with reduced reproductive output and possibly with decreased survival. However, there were no statistical differences in response between groups with helpers, groups with only non-helping subordinates, and breeding pairs without subordinates. With low rainfall, more sons (the sex less likely to help) were produced, and those subordinate males already present were less likely to help. Thus, in contrast to expectations, cooperative breeding does not seem to buffer against harsh environments in Seychelles warblers, indicating that group living may be costly and thus not a mechanism for coping with changing environments. Our study showed that the interaction between the environment and life histories, including social behaviour, is complex, but that this interaction is important to consider when studying the impact of changing environments on species survival.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-224
Number of pages14
Journalacta ethologica
Issue number3
Early online date13 Jan 2023
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Cooperation
  • Environmental change
  • Life history
  • Offspring sex ratio bias
  • Seychelles warbler

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