Evolutionary genetics of social behaviour in birds

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Animal and Plant Sciences


The existence of cooperative behaviour has posed a major problem for evolutionary biologists since Darwin first recognised that natural selection predicts selfishness rather than cooperation. Therefore, the sophisticated societies of social insects (ants, bees and wasps) and the cooperative breeding systems of many vertebrates, where non-breeding helpers assist breeders in raising their offspring, have been a major focus of research by evolutionary biologists. The biggest advance since Darwin in our understanding of such behaviour was the introduction of the concept of kin selection (inclusive fitness theory) by Hamilton in 1964. The key insight was the idea that individuals could increase their evolutionary fitness by increasing the survival or productivity of their relatives, as well as through personal reproduction. However, the role of kin selection in the evolution of the cooperative breeding systems of vertebrates remains a matter of considerable debate. One of the problems underlying this gap in understanding is the difficulty of measuring the fitness gained directly via personal reproduction, and that gained indirectly through kin-selected cooperation. The first objective of this project is to partition fitness in this way in the cooperative breeding system of the long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus.

Long-tailed tits are unique among UK birds in having a cooperative breeding system in which birds who have failed in their own breeding attempt seek out the nest of a relative in the same population and become helpers by assisting them in raising their offspring, thereby gaining indirect fitness benefits. The long-tailed tit provides an excellent model system for this project because they have been the subject of a long-term (since 1994) field study in which many relevant behavioural and life history traits have been measured in a systematic fashion each year for a large number of individuals (>2500 birds to 2010). This has allowed us to measure the reproductive success (i.e. fitness) of a large number of individuals. We have also established a social and genetic pedigree that will allow us to use quantitative genetics to determine the genetic and environmental basis for variation in key behavioural and life history characteristics associated with the evolution of social behaviour in this species.

More specifically, using the network of relatives in our pedigree we will investigate whether measures of fitness and cooperative behaviour are heritable traits. Secondly, we will investigate whether particular features of individuals' behaviour, morphology and/or life history vary with either their direct or indirect fitness. We are particularly interested in the likely sex differences in cooperative behaviour, hence sex differences in the kind of fitness individuals gain, and the consequences of this for the evolution of other traits linked to direct or indirect fitness in males and females. Finally, we will use this study system to address another long-standing question in evolutionary biology: if particular traits (such as cooperative behaviour) are heritable and linked to fitness, how is variation in those traits maintained? We will examine whether spatial and temporal variation in the environment influences the relationship between fitness and specific traits.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit, and how?

(a) A broad range of scientists, including behavioural, evolutionary and applied ecologists, as well as quantitative and population geneticists. The cooperative breeding system of long-tailed tits is relatively simple in several respects that make it unusually well suited to the investigations described in this proposal. The project will provide the most comprehensive dissection of the evolutionary genetics of any social vertebrate and should therefore be expected to provoke general interest and reach a wide audience.

(b) Conservation biologists interested in the effect that environmental change, usually anthropogenic, has on natural systems. One outcome that should be of particular interest to this group of beneficiaries will be the consequences of climatic variation for measures of fitness and for their relationship with phenotypic traits. Understanding of the consequences of climate change is conditional on certain assumptions about how genetic and environmental factors interact to determine individual fitness and hence population growth. Our investigation of the effects of environmental heterogeneity on the covariance between fitness and phenotypic variation will inform such investigations.

(c) The general public in the UK has a remarkable fascination with birds, as well as a particular interest in social relationships, being such a highly social species ourselves. Our research will contribute to the understanding of social evolution and especially of sex differences in access to kin-selected benefits and the consequences of this for cooperative behaviour by males and females. We would hope that such understanding would enhance public awareness and appreciation of the natural world, its parallels with our own societies, and its value for the quality of life. The PI is committed to the dissemination of research findings to non-academic audiences, including conservation organisations, local natural history groups and local schools.

(d) Human capital impacts of the research will be substantial. The Co-I (Dr Matt Robinson, currently a NERC Fellow) will gain experience in the leadership and management of research, assisting chiefly in the intellectual guidance of quantitative genetic analysis. The Researcher Co-I (Dr Jess Meade) has some limited experience of animal model analysis from her current post but will receive further training and gain experience in quantitative genetics. The field technician (to be appointed each year) will receive training in field techniques.


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Hatchwell BJ (2014) Helping in cooperatively breeding long-tailed tits: a test of Hamilton's rule. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

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Kenny E (2017) Allopreening in birds is associated with parental cooperation over offspring care and stable pair bonds across years. in Behavioral ecology : official journal of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology

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Leedale A (2020) Cost, risk, and avoidance of inbreeding in a cooperatively breeding bird in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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Leedale A (2020) Helping decisions and kin recognition in long-tailed tits: is call similarity used to direct help towards kin? in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Description A key prediction of inclusive fitness theory which states the conditions under which altruistic behavior evolves has been tested and upheld in a within-species analysis and comparative analysis. The genetic and environmental components of variation in social behavior have also been determined, and also the consequences for population dynamics. The inclusive fitness consequences of dispersal decisions have been measured, showing antagonistic selection on male and female dispersal strategies.
Exploitation Route The techniques developed for measuring social effects will be of widespread use in the field of evolutionary biology and animal breeding.
Sectors Education,Environment,Other

Description Scientific publications and meetings
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Education,Environment,Other
Impact Types Cultural