Partner fidelity and reciprocal investments in the mating system of a simultaneous hermaphrodite

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Simultaneous hermaphrodites that exchange gametes within pairs allow us to test whether equity of resource exchange is positively associated with duration of cooperative partnerships. The chalk bass (Serranus tortugarum) provides an excellent model system for such research because they spawn daily, trading sex roles with the same mating partners in repeated spawning bouts (a tactic called “egg parceling”). Even so, they live in site-attached aggregations with opportunities for extra-pair matings. We asked whether individuals spawn preferentially with 1 long-term partner and whether partner fidelity was associated with matching in the number of eggs produced in a single day by individuals within pairs. In addition, we observed random focal individuals during spawning to determine whether egg parceling was coordinated within pairs: we asked whether parcel number (per day) was well matched within pairs and whether parcels were exchanged in nonrandom sequences. We did not witness any “break-ups” in our long-term pairs; during each monthly census, all identified pairs were found spawning and courting with their “primary” mating partner until one or both of them disappeared. Daily egg production and the number of egg parcels exchanged within primary partnerships were coordinated. The sequence of parcel exchange was fairly regular, although ca. 20% of focal individuals fertilized or exchanged a few egg parcels with another partner(s); parceling allows individuals the option to exchange eggs outside of the primary pair. Our study provides novel empirical evidence of strong pair bonds and resource matching even in relatively large social groups with extra-pair trading opportunities.

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