Does ecology and life history predict parental cooperation in birds? A comparative analysis

Xiaoyan Long, Yang Liu, András Liker, Franz J. Weissing, Jan Komdeur, Tamás Székely

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Abstract: In animals, species differ remarkably in parental care strategies. For instance, male-only care is prevalent in teleost fishes, while biparental care predominates in birds and female-only care is widespread in mammals. Understanding the origin and maintenance of diversified parental care systems is a key challenge in evolutionary ecology. It has been suggested that ecological factors and life-history traits play important roles in the evolution of parental care, but the generality of these predictions has not been investigated across a broad range of taxa. Using phylogenetic comparative analyses and detailed parental care data from 1101 avian species that represent 119 families of 26 orders, here we investigate whether parental strategies are associated with ecological variables (i.e., food type, nest structure, and coloniality) and life-history characteristics (i.e., chick development mode and body size). We show that parental care strategies are in relation to coloniality (solitary, semi-colonial, colonial) and chick development mode (altricial vs. precocial). Colonial and altricial species provide more biparental care than solitary and precocial species, respectively. In contrast, food type (plant, invertebrate, vertebrate), nest structure (open vs. closed), and body size do not covary systematically with parental care patterns in birds. Taken together, our results suggest that living in groups and/or having high-demand offspring are strongly associated with biparental care. Towards the end, we discuss future research directions for the study of parental care evolution. Significance statement: Animal species differ remarkably in the amount of care parents provide to their offspring and in the distribution of care tasks over the parents. In birds, for example, the young of some species are quite independent from the start, while the young of other species are helpless after hatching, requiring a lot of care. Moreover, either the female or the male does most of the caring in some species, while the parental tasks are shared equally in still other species. To understand the diversified parental care patterns, we applied advanced comparative methods to a large data set comprising over 1000 bird species. The analysis reveals that the parents tend to share their care duties equally when they live in groups and/or have offspring that are born helpless, and that parental care patterns are not associated with diet, nest type or body size. Hence, living in groups and having high-demand offspring seem to play important roles in the evolution of parental care.

Original languageEnglish
Article number92
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2022


  • Body size
  • Chick development mode
  • Coloniality
  • Food type
  • Nest structure
  • Parental care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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