Monogamy without parental care? Social and genetic mating systems of avian brood parasites

William E. Feeney, Christina Pauline Riehl

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16 Scopus citations


Classic evolutionary theory predicts that monogamy should be intimately linked with parental care. It has long been assumed, therefore, that avian brood parasites—which lay their eggs in the nests of ‘host’ species and provide little, if any, parental care—should be overwhelmingly promiscuous. However, recent studies have revealed that the social mating systems of brood parasites are surprisingly diverse, encompassing lek polygyny, monogamy, polygamy and promiscuity. What ecological or phylogenetic factors explain this variation, and why are some brood parasites apparently monogamous? Here we review the social and genetic mating systems of all 75 brood parasitic species for which data are available and evaluate several hypotheses that may help explain these patterns. We find that social monogamy is widespread, often co-occurring with territoriality and cooperative behaviour by the mated pair. Comparative studies, though preliminary, suggest that in some species, monogamy is associated with low host density and polygamy with higher host density. Interestingly, molecular data show that genetic and social mating systems can be entirely decoupled: genetic monogamy can occur in parasitic species that lack behavioural pair-bonds, possibly as a by-product of territoriality; conversely, social monogamy has been reported in parasites that are genetically polygamous. This synthesis suggests that social and genetic monogamy may result from very different selective pressures, and that male–female cooperative behaviours, population density and territoriality may all interact to favour the evolution of monogamous mating in brood parasites. Given that detailed descriptive data of social, and especially genetic, mating systems are still lacking for the majority of brood parasitic species, definitive tests of these hypotheses await future work. This article is part of the theme issue ‘The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20180201
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1769
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Brood parasitism
  • Polygamy
  • Reproductive trade-offs
  • Sexual selection
  • Social evolution
  • Territoriality


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