The ecological conditions leading to delayed dispersal and helping behavior are generally thought to follow one of two contrasting scenarios: that conditions are stable and predictable, resulting in young being ecologically forced to remain as helpers (extrinsic constraints and the habitat saturation hypothesis), or that conditions are highly variable and unpredictable, leading to the need for helpers to raise young, at least when conditions are poor (intrinsic constraints and the hard life hypothesis). We investigated how variability in ecological conditions influences the degree to which helpers augment breeder fitness in the cooperatively breeding acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), a species in which the acorn crop, territory quality, and prior breeding experience all vary in ways that have important effects on fitness. We found that the relationship between ecological conditions and the probability that birds would remain as helpers was variable but that helpers generally yielded greater fitness benefits when ecological conditions were favorable, rather than unfavorable, for breeding. These results affirm the importance of extrinsic constraints to delayed dispersal and cooperative breeding in this species, despite its dependence on a highly variable and unpredictable acorn crop. Our findings also confirm that helpers can have very different fitness effects, depending on conditions, but that those effects are not necessarily greater when breeding conditions are unfavorable.
Original Publication Citation
Koenig, W. D., Walters, E. L., & Haydock, J. (2011). Variable helper effects, ecological conditions, and the evolution of cooperative breeding in the acorn woodpecker. American Naturalist, 178(2), 145-158. doi:10.1086/660832
Koenig, Walter D.; Walters, Eric L.; and Haydock, Joseph, "Variable Helper Effects, Ecological Conditions, and the Evolution of Cooperative Breeding in the Acorn Woodpecker" (2011). Biological Sciences Faculty Publications. 183.