Variation in group size is ubiquitous in social animals, but explaining the range of group sizes seen in nature remains challenging.1–3 Group-living species occur most frequently in climatically unpredictable environments, such that the costs and benefits of sociality may change from year to year.4–6 It is, therefore, possible that variation in climate may help to maintain a range of group sizes, but this hypothesis is rarely tested empirically.7,8 Here, we examine selection on breeding group size in the greater ani (Crotophaga major), a tropical bird that nests in cooperative groups containing multiple co-breeders and non-breeding helpers.9 We found that larger groups experience lower nest predation (due to cooperative nest defense) but suffer higher nestling starvation (due to intra-clutch competition). Long-term data revealed that the relative magnitude of these costs and benefits depends on climate, with frequent changes across years in the strength and direction of selection on group size. In wet years, individual reproductive success was higher in large groups than in small groups, whereas the opposite was true in dry years. This was partly a consequence of competition among nestlings in large clutches, which suffered significantly higher mortality in dry years than in wet years. Averaged over the 13-year study period, annual reproductive success was approximately equal for females in small and large groups. These results suggest that temporal changes in the direction of selection may help explain the persistence of a range of group sizes and that a full understanding of the selective pressures shaping sociality requires long-term fitness data.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
- El Niño-Southern Oscillation
- climate unpredictability
- cooperative breeding
- fluctuating selection