The annual testosterone profile in cooperatively breeding superb fairy-wrens, Malurus cyaneus, reflects their extreme infidelity
Superb fairy-wrens are cooperatively breeding birds that combine stable, socially monogamous pair bonds and high levels of paternal care, with extreme levels of extra-pair mating and high levels of sexual competition. Our aim was to determine which testosterone correlates would prevail in such a life history that combines features that are conventionally associated with divergent hormone profiles. Unlike the situation in other species with monogamous pair bonds and high levels of paternal care, testosterone was elevated for a very long period of several months. During breeding there was a broad peak in testosterone followed by a gradual decline: this resembles the profile found in polygynous and promiscuous species. We found that three factors correlated with testosterone: development of the sexually selected nuptial plumage, social status and extra-group mating opportunities. Testosterone started increasing months prior to breeding, when the males that are later preferred as extra-group sires develop their nuptial plumage. Although these males did not have higher testosterone levels during breeding, they sustained high testosterone for much longer, and this might lend reliability to this sexual signal. Dominant males in groups had higher testosterone than pair-dwelling males and subordinate helpers. This was not due to differences in age, reproductive capability or mating opportunities, but was presumably associated with the assertion of dominance. In contrast to findings in other species, male testosterone level was not correlated with whether the resident female was fertile or had dependent nestlings. However, testosterone was strongly correlated with the total number of fertile females in the population, and hence with the opportunities for extra-group mating.