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Animal Behaviour






There are two main hypotheses for why offspring in cooperatively breeding taxa delay dispersal and remain on their natal territory rather than disperse. First, ecological constraints may force offspring to remain on their natal territory until a reproductive opportunity presents itself in an otherwise saturated habitat. Alternatively, delaying dispersal and helping kin may increase an offspring's inclusive fitness. One means by which offspring might enhance their direct fitness by delaying dispersal is by inheriting breeding status on their natal territory. Such territory inheritance regularly occurs in acorn woodpeckers, Melanerpes formicivorus, a species whose social groups consist of a cooperatively polygynandrous breeding core along with nonbreeding helpers of both sexes that are offspring from prior breeding efforts. Here we examine the life-history differences and the fitness consequences of birds attaining breeder status by either inheriting their natal territory or dispersing to a new territory. Despite significant differences in life history, including the mean territory quality on which individuals bred and mean co-breeder coalition size of breeders, we found no statistical differences in either direct or kin-selected (indirect) fitness benefits for breeders that inherited and dispersed. The incidence of birds engaging in both strategies, inheriting their natal territory and later dispersing, or dispersing but later returning to inherit their natal territory, further reduces the potential direct fitness benefits of inheritance relative to dispersal, since neither precludes the other. Territory inheritance is an important, alternative means of achieving breeding status in this population. However, ecological constraints to dispersal and kin-selected fitness benefits as a helper likely play larger roles driving the acorn woodpecker's extraordinary social system.


© 2023 The Authors.

This is an open access article under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

Data Availability

Article states: "Data used in the analyses are provided as supplementary material."

"Supplementary material associated with this article is available, in the online version, at"

Original Publication Citation

Koenig, W. D., Haydock, J., Dugdale, H. L., & Walters, E. L. (2023). Territory inheritance and the evolution of cooperative breeding in the acorn woodpecker. Animal Behaviour, 205, 241-249.


0000-0002-9414-5758 (Walters)

1-s2.0-S0003347223002208-mmc1.docx (17 kB)
Supplementary Material

1-s2.0-S0003347223002208-mmc2.csv (31 kB)
Supplementary Material 2


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