Intermittent breeding is associated with breeding group turnover in a cooperatively breeding bird

Abstract

Intermittent breeding, in which an adult skips a breeding opportunity, can represent a non-adaptive constraint or an adaptive response to the tradeoff between current and future reproduction. In group-living animals, the social group may also affect the frequency of reproduction, but this possibility has received little attention. Here we use an 11-year data set to investigate intermittent breeding in the greater ani (Crotophaga major), a tropical bird that nests in stable breeding groups containing several unrelated co-breeding females. Population-wide, an average of 62% of females laid eggs in a given year (range 35–84%), and the average female failed to lay eggs once every 3.2 years. We found little support for the hypothesis that intermittent breeding reflects a tradeoff between current and future reproduction: breeding in year t did not affect a female’s likelihood of breeding in year t + 1, and clutch size in year t did not affect clutch size in year t + 1. Increases in clutch size were associated with decreases in egg mass for eggs laid at the end of that clutch, but this did not affect subsequent nesting attempts. However, reproductive skipping was associated with changes in group membership. Females whose groups changed in composition after year t were significantly less likely to breed in year t + 1 than females whose groups remained stable. These results indicate that breeding group stability influences the frequency of reproduction, suggesting that transitions between groups may be costly to females and their mates.

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Data accessibility

The data generated and analyzed during this study will be made publicly available in the Dryad Digital Repository upon publication.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Meghan J. Strong for invaluable assistance with field and genetic analyses and for database management. Chiti Arvind, Luke Carabbia, Christa Morris, Laura Jara Reyes, Amanda G. Savagian and Zachariah Smart assisted with data collection in the field. Dustin Rubenstein and Joan Silk provided valuable feedback on different aspects of the results. We are very grateful to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute for hosting this long-term project and providing infrastructure and support.

Funding

Long-term monitoring of the greater ani study population was funded by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Milton Fund of Harvard University, the Putnam Expedition Fund of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, the Program for Latin American Studies at Princeton University, and the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, via grants to C.R. Funding to M.G.S. was provided by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and by Princeton University.

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Contributions

CR conceived the study, collected field data, conducted genetic identification of females, and managed the study system. MGS organized the data set, conducted statistical analyses, and created figures. Both authors wrote the paper and contributed to the interpretation and presentation of data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christina Riehl.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Ethical standards

The research in this study was approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Genetic samples were collected and exported with approval from the Ministerio de Ambiente de Panamá and imported to the USA with approval from the US Department of Agriculture.

Additional information

Communicated by Robert L. Thomson.

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Smith, M.G., Riehl, C. Intermittent breeding is associated with breeding group turnover in a cooperatively breeding bird. Oecologia 192, 953–963 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-020-04635-7

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Keywords

  • Communal breeding
  • Group stability
  • Life history theory
  • Skipped spawning
  • Reproductive skipping