Cooperative Breeding in the Southern Anteater-Chat Sexual Disparity, Survival and Dispersal

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: Group-living sets the scene for complex social behaviours such as cooperative breeding, and exploring the factors that shape group-living is crucial in understanding these behaviours. This thesis explores the ecology of a population of the facultative cooperative breeding southern anteater-chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora), a group-living bird species endemic to southern Africa. It reveals a breeding system based around a breeding pair and up to three auxiliary males. Despite equal numbers of males and females produced as fledglings there was a surplus of adult males, which remained philopatric. Dispersal was strongly female biased. Females dispersed within their first year, they dispersed further than males, and they lost the benefits of the natal site. The sex skew in the population suggested that these factors drive differential mortality, with juvenile females having much lower annual survival than juvenile males. Adult survival was higher, with female survival only slightly lower than male survival. Dispersal distances suggested that males selected the breeding location, nearer to their natal site. There was no evidence of surplus non-breeding females. On the loss of a breeding female there was no replacement until new females entered the population, yet if a breeding male disappeared the female promptly re-paired with a male from another group. There was no indication of birds floating in the population, and if males were orphaned or widowed they joined other groups as unrelated helpers in preference to floating. There was no sign of inter-group or individual aggression among chats, and unrelated helpers were peacefully accepted into groups, suggesting mutual benefits. In fact all birds in a group helped raise offspring of the breeding pair, and groups with more helpers fledged more offspring, which implies that both direct and indirect fitness benefits can be gained through joining a group and helping. There was surprisingly little inheritance of breeding position by auxiliaries, and strikingly low levels of extra-pair paternity. This study suggests that the Southern anteater-chat group structure arises through male philopatry due to a shortage of breeding females, the benefits of remaining on the natal site and helping, and the potentially high costs of living alone.