Do females trade copulations for food? An experimental study on kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla)

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Females of many species copulate more frequently than necessary to fertilize their eggs despite the potential costs. Several studies, particularly on socially monogamous birds, have suggested that females obtain immediate material benefits by trading copulations for nutrients or other resources. We experimentally tested this hypothesis by manipulating the food resources available to prelaying female black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla). If female kittiwakes trade copulations for courtship feeding because they need the extra resources, well-fed females (experimental group) should be less willing to copulate compared with females that are more food limited (control group). Contrary to our predictions, we found that close to the start of laying experimental females copulated more frequently with their mate than control females. We also observed that males from the experimental group fed their mate at least as often as males from the control group. In experimental pairs, we still observed a positive correlation between the rate of copulation and the rate of courtship feeding. Our results thus refute the immediate material benefits hypothesis. Currently available data are consistent with the hypothesis that prelaying courtship feeding is a form of mating effort. We suggest that the rate of courtship feeding might be a sexually selected trait, on which females base decisions about timing and frequency of copulations, but this remains to be tested.

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