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Cooperation facilitates the colonization of harsh environments


Animals living in harsh environments, where temperatures are hot and rainfall is unpredictable, are more likely to breed in cooperative groups. As a result, harsh environmental conditions have been accepted as a key factor explaining the evolution of cooperation. However, this is based on evidence that has not investigated the order of evolutionary events, so the inferred causality could be incorrect. We resolved this problem using phylogenetic analyses of 4,707 bird species and found that causation was in the opposite direction to that previously assumed. Rather than harsh environments favouring cooperation, cooperative breeding has facilitated the colonization of harsh environments. Cooperative breeding was, in fact, more likely to evolve from ancestors occupying relatively cool environmental niches with predictable rainfall, which had low levels of polyandry and hence high within-group relatedness. We also found that polyandry increased after cooperative breeders invaded harsh environments, suggesting that when helpers have limited options to breed independently, polyandry no longer destabilizes cooperation. This provides an explanation for the puzzling cases of polyandrous cooperative breeding birds. More generally, this illustrates how cooperation can play a key role in invading ecological niches, a pattern observed across all levels of biological organization from cells to animal societies.

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Figure 1: Animals living in harsh environments are more likely to breed cooperatively.
Figure 2: Cooperative breeding and the association with harsh environments and low levels of polyandry.
Figure 3: Cooperation and the invasion of harsh environments.
Figure 4: The release of constraints on female polyandry in harsh environments.
Figure 5: Evolutionary transitions between cooperative breeding and environmental niches.


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We thank the Swedish Research Council (VR), the Knut and Alice Wallenberg foundation, the Royal Society, the US National Science Foundation (IOS-1121435, IOS-1257530 and IOS-1439985) and the European Research Council for funding, and S.-F. Shen for comments.

Author information




C.K.C., S.A., D.R.R. and A.S.G. conceived the study, C.K.C. analysed the data, C.A.B. and P.D. contributed materials, and all authors contributed substantially to writing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Charlie K. Cornwallis.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Cornwallis, C., Botero, C., Rubenstein, D. et al. Cooperation facilitates the colonization of harsh environments. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0057 (2017).

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