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Decisions about parental care in response to perceived paternity


Evolutionary ecologists are attempting to explain how parents make behavioural decisions about how much care to provide to their young1,2,3,4. Theory predicts that when genetic relatedness to young is decreased by cuckoldry, for example, parents should reduce their care in favour of alternative broods that provide greater reproductive success5,6,7. Experimental manipulation of perceived paternity has been used to test the theory8,9, but such studies have generated mixed results10,11,12,13. Some manipulations can fail to alter a parent's perceived paternity14, whereas others may directly affect parental behaviour when, for instance, the manipulation involves capturing the parent15,16,17,18. No study has demonstrated parental care adjustment in a manner uncomplicated by experimental design or life history correlates. Here I test the theory using the fact that nest-tending parental male bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus) can assess their paternity using both the visual presence of parasitic cuckolder males during spawning19, and olfactory cues released by newly hatched eggs20,21. By manipulating both types of cues I show that parental males dynamically adjust their parental care, favouring broods that are apparently most closely related. These results confirm the importance of genetic relatedness in parental care decision-making.

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Figure 1: Parental care by control and treatment parental male bluegill.
Figure 2: Changes in parental care by control and treatment parental male bluegill.


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I thank L. M. Cargnelli, M. R. Gross, E. A. MacDougall-Shackleton, J. D. Olden, T. E. Pitcher and P. W. Sherman, and H. Kokko, J. D. Reynolds and B. C. Sheldon for comments on this work. I am indebted to P. Fu for providing field assistance. This work was conducted at the Queen's University Biological Station and conformed to protocols outlined by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. The research was supported by the Sigma Xi and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Bryan D. Neff.

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Neff, B. Decisions about parental care in response to perceived paternity. Nature 422, 716–719 (2003).

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