Who cares? Effect of coping style and social context on brood care and defense in superb fairy-wrens

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In cooperatively breeding species, a breeding pair is often assisted in brood care by relatives. Group members can assist in both offspring provisioning and nest- and territory defense. It has been hypothesized that task specialization should occur in stable groups to make them more efficient and that individuals should perform tasks best suited to their behavioral phenotype or coping style. Alternatively, individuals may vary in how cooperative they are overall. We tested whether cooperatively breeding superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) show task division or individual variation in cooperativeness during brood care and territory defense and whether contribution was related to coping style. We recorded offspring provisioning rates and presented groups with a conspecific “intruder” (taxidermic mount) and a novel object near the nest to score territory- and nest defense behavior, respectively. These behaviors were then compared with each other and with novel environment exploration, a good proxy of coping style in our population. Contrary to predictions, our data provided no evidence for task division or individual variation in cooperativeness. Response to the “intruder” was generally stronger when more than 1 group member was present. Within groups, relatively fast explorers responded more strongly to the novel object than relatively slow explorers when other group members were present, but not when alone. These results demonstrate that coping style can influence contribution to certain tasks, depending on the social context. They also emphasize the importance of social context in defense behavior in general.

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