Biological markets in cooperative breeders: quantifying outside options

Lena Grinsted, Jeremy Field

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A major aim in evolutionary biology is to understand altruistic help and reproductive partitioning in cooperative societies, where subordinate helpers forego reproduction to rear dominant breeders' offspring. Traditional models of cooperation in these societies typically make a key assumption: that the only alternative to staying and helping is solitary breeding, an often unfeasible task. Using large-scale field experiments on paper wasps (Polistes dominula), we show that individuals have high-quality alternative nesting options available that offer fitness payoffs just as high as their actual chosen options, far exceeding payoffs from solitary breeding. Furthermore, joiners could not easily be replaced if they were removed experimentally, suggesting that it may be costly for dominants to reject them. Our results have implications for expected payoff distributions for cooperating individuals, and suggest that biological market theory, which incorporates partner choice and competition for partners, is necessary to understand helping behaviour in societies like that of P. dominula. Traditional models are likely to overestimate the incentive to stay and help, and therefore the amount of help provided, and may underestimate the size of reproductive concession required to retain subordinates. These findings are relevant for a wide range of cooperative breeders where there is dispersal between social groups.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological sciences
Issue number1856
Early online date14 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017

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