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Dalliances and doubtful dads: what determines extra-pair paternity in socially monogamous wandering albatrosses?


Genetic techniques have revealed surprisingly high rates of extra-pair paternity (EPP) in socially monogamous albatrosses. We sought to establish social and genetic influences on EPP in wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) at Marion Island, where EPP rates were 14–24 % in three successive seasons. EPP probably resulted from both female solicited extra-pair behaviours and male forced copulations. EPP was not linked to breeding experience nor with poor reproductive performance, despite a tendency for pairs to consistently produce either EPP or within-pair paternity (WPP) chicks. Mate guarding may inhibit extra-pair behaviour; however, parental arrival date and presence in the colony prior to laying did not correlate with EPP. There was little support for genetic advantages to producing EPP chicks, but the population is characterised by low genetic variability, which may result in mate incompatibility. Mates of pairs that failed and pairs producing EPP young tended to be more similar genetically to their partners than mates producing WPP young, suggesting that EPP may counter mate incompatibility. EPP and WPP chicks grow equally well, so cuckolded males did not reduce investment in EPP chicks. The lack of discriminatory behaviour by cuckolded males together with low genetic diversity in the population may allow continued high levels of EPP. In albatrosses, pair bonds are typically long lasting and the costs of forming new pairings may discourage mate swapping. Females may undertake extra-pair copulations as an adaptive alternative to mate swapping because the costs of extra-pair behaviour are small.

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Thanks to Quentin Hagens for valuable advice and assistance in formative stages of fieldwork. Henk Louw, Edith Mertz and Paul Visser gave extensive assistance with fieldwork. Some data are from long-term monitoring of wandering albatrosses at Marion Island, which was initiated by John Cooper. Some genetic analyses were performed at the DNA Sequencing Unit, Central Analytical Facility, Stellenbosch University. We thank two reviewers for their thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Financial and logistical support was provided by the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence (CoE) at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and the South African National Antarctic Programme (through the National Research Foundation).

Ethical standards

Research conducted was approved by University of Cape Town’s Animal Ethics Committee and the Prince Edward Islands’ Management Committee. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interests.

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Correspondence to M. Genevieve W. Jones.

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Communicated by C. R. Brown

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Jones, M.G.W., Techow, N.M.S.M. & Ryan, P.G. Dalliances and doubtful dads: what determines extra-pair paternity in socially monogamous wandering albatrosses?. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 66, 1213–1224 (2012).

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  • Extra-pair paternity
  • Forced copulation
  • Genetic variability
  • Mate choice
  • Monogamy
  • Parental investment