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Anim Behav. 1999 Nov;58(5):1123-1129.

Divorce and asynchronous arrival in common terns, Sterna hirundo.

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Institut für Vogelforschung 'Vogelwarte Helgoland'


We investigated which of three hypotheses (better option, incompatibility or asynchronous arrival) best explains divorce in the common tern. One partner did not return the next year in 18.5% of 150 pairs. Among the 106 pairs in which both mates returned, the divorce rate was 18.9%. We found no significant differences in: breeding performance or condition in relation to the probability of divorce; quality of previous mates and new mates, mean age in relation to pair bond status; breeding success before and after divorce nor did this differ from breeding success of reunited pairs. Hence the better option and incompatibility hypotheses were not supported. However, divorce was more likely in pairs in which mates arrived asynchronously on the breeding grounds, supporting the asynchronous arrival hypothesis. Median arrival asynchrony for divorced pairs was 7.5 days and for reunited pairs 2 days; mates arriving more than 16 days apart always split up. About 20% of divorced birds lost breeding status in the year of divorce, probably as a consequence of their late arrival. Our results suggest that terns search for a new mate as soon as they arrive on the breeding grounds and that mates remain faithful to each other to avoid the costs of searching for a new partner. Thus, synchrony in arrival facilitates pair bond maintenance rather than asynchrony promoting divorce, since divorce appears to be a side-effect of asynchrony and not an active decision.

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