, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 237-242

Joint breeding in female burying beetles

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Burying beetles (Nicrophorus) exhibit advanced parental care, by feeding and guarding their offspring on buried vertebrate carrion. Till now, interactions between two conspecific females on a carcass have been thought to be mostly competitive, and parental care was thought to be provided by single females or male-female pairs exclusively. Here we demonstrate that cooperative brood care occurs in this species, and that its incidence is contingent on carcass size. Small carcasses are usually monopolized by one female; typically the larger of two female combatants secures the carcass for her offspring (Figs. 1 and 2). On large carcasses fights still occur, but in most cases both females stay on the carcass long enough to provide care for the brood. The use of genetic markers revealed that the maternity of offspring is shared evenly among joint breeders (Figs. 3, 4). We hypothesize that cooperative breeding is an adaptive response to a situation that arises partly as a consequence of a physical constraint.

Correspondence to: J.K. Müller