Learned kin recognition cues in a social bird


In many cooperatively breeding birds, kin selection has an important role in the evolution and maintenance of social behaviour, and ‘helpers’ can maximize indirect fitness gains by preferentially allocating care to close relatives1,2,3. Although there is evidence for kin-biased helping behaviour in several species1,4,5, the mechanism of kin recognition underlying this behaviour is poorly understood2. Vocalizations are the most commonly used cues in avian recognition systems6,7, but the effectiveness of vocal signals as reliable recognition cues must depend on how they are acquired6,7,8,9. However, there have been no experimental studies of the development of vocal recognition cues in cooperative birds; indeed, the ontogeny of all bird vocalizations other than song is poorly known in any species10,11,12. Here, we show that cooperatively breeding long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) can discriminate between kin and non-kin according to the individual-specific characteristics of contact calls, and show experimentally that individuals learn these calls from provisioning adults during the nestling period. Finally, we show that the pattern of cooperative behaviour in this species is consistent with the use of recognition cues learned through association.

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Figure 1: Responses to playback trials (n = 8) using the churr calls of kin and non-kin with maximum and minimum frequency unmanipulated (Unmanip.) and manipulated (Manip.).
Figure 2: Call similarity between different groups of siblings.
Figure 3: Call similarity between recruits from cross-fostered broods and their true and foster parents.


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We thank T.R. Birkhead, N.B. Davies, J. Slate and A.P. Beckerman for their advice; A.D.C. MacColl, D.J. Ross, M.K. Fowlie and A.F. Russell for their assistance with fieldwork; and Doncaster and Sheffield City Councils, Yorkshire Water and Hallam Golf Club for allowing us to watch birds on their land. This research was supported by NERC and the University of Sheffield.

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Correspondence to Stuart P. Sharp.

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Sharp, S., McGowan, A., Wood, M. et al. Learned kin recognition cues in a social bird. Nature 434, 1127–1130 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03522

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