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Future fitness and helping in social queues

Naturevolume 441pages214217 (2006) | Download Citation



Helpers in primitively eusocial and cooperatively breeding animal societies forfeit their own reproduction to rear the offspring of a queen or breeding pair, but may eventually attain breeding status themselves. Kin selection1 provides a widely accepted theoretical framework for understanding these societies, but differences in genetic relatedness do not explain a universal societal feature: the huge variation between individuals in helping effort2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. An alternative explanation for this variation lies in a fundamental trade-off faced by helpers: by working harder, they increase the indirect component of their fitness, but simultaneously decrease their own future survival and fecundity2,4,8. Here, we show that individuals work less hard when they stand to lose more future fitness through working. We experimentally manipulated two components of future fitness in social queues of hover wasps (Stenogastrinae): a helper's chance of inheriting an egg-laying position, and the workforce available to rear her offspring should she inherit. After each manipulation, helpers increased or decreased their effort as appropriate to the change in expected future fitness that they experienced. Although helping provides significant indirect fitness benefits for hover wasps11, our study shows that variation in the costs associated with helping is the major determinant of helping effort.

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We thank S. Brace, S. Rantala, G. Shreeves and J. Vulliamy for help with fieldwork; K. Durai, H. Rosli and A. Sofian for their hospitality in Malaysia; M. Cant for comments and the Natural Environment Research Council for funding. Author Contributions C.B. and J.F. did the fieldwork for experiment 1; A.C. and J.F. did the fieldwork for experiment 2; C.B obtained the genotypic data. J.F. carried out the statistical analyses and wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the paper.

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  1. Department of Biology, University College London, Wolfson House, 4 Stephenson Way, NW1 2HE, London, UK

    • Jeremy Field
    • , Adam Cronin
    •  & Catherine Bridge


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Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Jeremy Field.

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