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Nature. 2005 Apr 28;434(7037):1127-30.

Learned kin recognition cues in a social bird.

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Evolution and Behaviour Group, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Western Bank, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK.


In many cooperatively breeding birds, kin selection has an important role in the evolution and maintenance of social behaviour, and 'helpers' can maximize indirect fitness gains by preferentially allocating care to close relatives. Although there is evidence for kin-biased helping behaviour in several species, the mechanism of kin recognition underlying this behaviour is poorly understood. Vocalizations are the most commonly used cues in avian recognition systems, but the effectiveness of vocal signals as reliable recognition cues must depend on how they are acquired. However, there have been no experimental studies of the development of vocal recognition cues in cooperative birds; indeed, the ontogeny of all bird vocalizations other than song is poorly known in any species. Here, we show that cooperatively breeding long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) can discriminate between kin and non-kin according to the individual-specific characteristics of contact calls, and show experimentally that individuals learn these calls from provisioning adults during the nestling period. Finally, we show that the pattern of cooperative behaviour in this species is consistent with the use of recognition cues learned through association.

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