Evolutionary routes to non-kin cooperative breeding in birds

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Cooperatively breeding animals live in social groups in which some individuals help to raise the offspring of others, often at the expense of their own reproduction. Kin selection-when individuals increase their inclusive fitness by aiding genetic relatives-is a powerful explanation for the evolution of cooperative breeding, particularly because most groups consist of family members. However, recent molecular studies have revealed that many cooperative groups also contain unrelated immigrants, and the processes responsible for the formation and maintenance of non-kin coalitions are receiving increasing attention. Here, I provide the first systematic review of group structure for all 213 species of cooperatively breeding birds for which data are available. Although the majority of species (55%) nest in nuclear family groups, cooperative breeding by unrelated individuals is more common than previously recognized: 30% nest in mixed groups of relatives and non-relatives, and 15% nest primarily with non-relatives. Obligate cooperative breeders are far more likely to breed with non-kin than are facultative cooperators, indicating that when constraints on independent breeding are sufficiently severe, the direct benefits of group membership can substitute for potential kin-selected benefits. I review three patterns of dispersal that give rise to social groups with low genetic relatedness, and I discuss the selective pressures that favour the formation of such groups. Although kin selection has undoubtedly been crucial to the origin of most avian social systems, direct benefits have subsequently come to play a predominant role in some societies, allowing cooperation to persist despite low genetic relatedness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20132245
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1772
StatePublished - Oct 16 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Cooperative breeding
  • Direct benefits
  • Mating systems
  • Parasitism
  • Unrelated


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