Pre-social benefits of extended parental care

Abstract

The evolution of helping, in which some individuals forfeit their own reproduction and help others to reproduce, is a central problem in evolutionary biology. Recently proposed insurance-based mechanisms rely on a pre-existing life history with a long period of offspring dependency relative to the short life expectancies of adult carers1,2,3,4: a lone mother's offspring are doomed if she dies young, whereas after a helper dies, other group members can finish rearing the offspring5,6. A critical question, however, is how this life history could evolve in ancestral non-social populations, as offspring survival would then depend on a single, short-lived carer. Here, we resolve this paradox by focusing on the extended parental care inherent in prolonged dependency. We show experimentally that in non-social wasps, extended care can significantly reduce the impact of interspecific parasites. Under extended care, offspring are less vulnerable by the time they are exposed to parasites, and costs of parasitism are reduced because mothers have the option to terminate investment in failing offspring. By experimentally simulating aspects of extended care in a species where it is lacking, we demonstrate that neither benefit requires specialized behaviour. Such benefits could therefore offset the disadvantage of prolonged dependency in non-social species, thereby facilitating the evolution of helping.

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Figure 1: Offspring production under mass versus progressive provisioning.
Figure 2: Ammophila nesting biology.

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Acknowledgements

We thank E. Almond, M. Cant, C. Bridge, A. Cronin, W. Foster and G. Shreeves for advice and comments, and English Nature for access to the study sites. S.B. was funded by a Nuffield Foundation undergraduate research bursary.

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Correspondence to Jeremy Field.

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Field, J., Brace, S. Pre-social benefits of extended parental care. Nature 428, 650–652 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02427

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