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Theses Doctoral

Costs and Benefits of Breeding Cooperatively in Fluctuating Environments in African Starlings

Guindre-Parker, Sarah Laurence

Global climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme and unpredictable weather in many parts of the world. As a result, a critical goal for biologists is to predict how organisms may come to cope with increased environmental variability. The key to making these predictions will be to understand how animals currently living in fluctuating environments are able to survive and reproduce under these conditions. Sociality (i.e. group living) and cooperative breeding (i.e. where more than two individuals care for young together) may both facilitate the colonization of highly fluctuating environments. However, the relative benefits of group living and engaging in alloparental care under variable conditions remain unclear. My dissertation examines the fitness consequences of living in one of the world’s most unpredictable habitats—the African savanna—in a population of free-living cooperatively breeding superb starlings (Lamprotornis superbus). In chapter 1, I examine whether adults benefit from living in large social groups of up to 50 individuals, which are among the largest known for any cooperatively breeding bird. In addition, I test whether group size serves to buffer against harsh environmental conditions. In chapter 2, I examine whether breeders gain reproductive benefits by having alloparents at their nest—I explore the type of reproductive benefits gained (i.e. improved reproductive success versus offspring care load-lightening), as well as whether these benefits occur in both harsh and benign conditions (i.e. temporal variability hypothesis), or are greatest under harsh conditions only (i.e. hard life hypothesis). In chapter 3, I explore whether offspring care load-lightening reduces the cost of reproduction incurred by breeders and alloparents by comparing four physiological mechanisms known to mediate reproductive costs. Lastly, in chapter 4 I test the long-standing assumption that cooperatively breeding species face reduced costs of reproduction by sharing offspring care relative to non-cooperatively breeding species. I compare the oxidative cost of reproduction in superb starlings to greater blue-eared glossy starlings (L. chalybaeus), a synoptic non-cooperatively breeding species. Taken together my dissertation findings demonstrate that group living and alloparental care do not solely buffer against harsh conditions in superb starlings, but instead provide individuals with the flexibility to modify their offspring care behavior according to environmental conditions, to the behavior of other group members, and to their physiological condition prior to breeding—this behavioral flexibility may in turn serve to mitigate fluctuations in the cost of living and breeding in variable environments.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Thesis Advisors
Rubenstein, Dustin R.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 8, 2017
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