Testosterone, social status and parental care in a cooperatively breeding bird

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Abstract

The steroid hormone testosterone not only plays an important role in gamete production, but also influences social and aggressive behavior. Testosterone varies seasonally, peaking when competition for mates is high and declining during parental care. Surprisingly, little is known about how testosterone mediates social conflict and parental care behavior in highly social species like cooperative breeders, where group members compete for breeding opportunities and provide parental or alloparental care. We examined how testosterone differs across breeding roles in the tropical cooperatively breeding superb starling, Lamprotornis superbus. We determined whether testosterone was elevated in larger groups, and whether testosterone was negatively related to total levels of parental and alloparental care. We found that male breeders had higher testosterone than male helpers and female breeders and helpers during incubation. However, breeding males exhibited a significant decline in testosterone from incubation to chick rearing, and all individuals had similar levels during the chick rearing stage. Additionally, helpers—but not breeders—in large social groups had higher testosterone than those in small groups. Finally, testosterone was not correlated with nestling provisioning rates during chick rearing, suggesting that natural variation in the low levels of testosterone observed during periods of high parental care does not affect nestling provisioning. Together, these results offer insight into how testosterone is related to breeding roles, intra-group conflict, and parental care in a highly social species.

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