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Curr Biol. 2007 Aug 21;17(16):1414-9.

Temporal environmental variability drives the evolution of cooperative breeding in birds.

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  • 1Department of Integrative Biology and University of California, Berkeley, 3060 Valley Life Sciences Building, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.


Many vertebrates breed in cooperative groups in which more than two members provide care for young. Studies of cooperative breeding behavior within species have long highlighted the importance of environmental factors in mediating the paradox of why some such individuals delay independent breeding to help raise the offspring of others. In contrast, studies involving comparisons among species have not shown a similarly clear evolutionary-scale relationship between the interspecific incidence of cooperative breeding and any environmental factors. Here, we use a phylogenetically controlled comparative analysis of a complete, socially diverse group of birds-45 species of African starlings-to show that cooperative breeding is positively associated with living in semiarid savanna habitats and with temporal variability in rainfall. Savanna habitats are not only highly seasonal, but also temporally variable and unpredictable, and this temporal variability directly influences individual reproductive decisions in starlings and helps explain interspecific patterns of sociality. Cooperative breeding is likely to be adaptive in temporally variable environments because it allows for both reproduction in harsh years and sustained breeding during benign years. This "temporal variability" hypothesis might help explain the phylogenetic and geographic concentrations of cooperatively breeding vertebrates in savanna-like habitats and other temporally variable environments worldwide.

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