Towards a unified theory of cooperative breeding: The role of ecology and life history re-examined

I. Pen*, F.J. Weissing

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

117 Citations (Scopus)
288 Downloads (Pure)


We present quantitative models that unify several adaptive hypotheses for the evolution of cooperative breeding in a single framework: the ecological constraints hypothesis, the life-history hypothesis and the benefits-of-philopatry hypothesis. Our goal is to explain interspecific variation in the occurrence of cooperative breeding in terms of interspecific variation in life-history traits and ecological conditions. We analyse two models, according to whether or not helpers can inherit their parents’ territory. Major results are (i) territory inheritance always promotes cooperative breeding; (ii) if territories are not inherited, neither ecological constraints nor variation in life-history traits predict interspecific variation in cooperative breeding; and (iii) if territories are inherited, the mechanism of density regulation is crucial in determining which factors promote cooperative breeding. If density dependence acts on the probability to obtain a free territory or on the survival of dispersers, variation in ecological constraints cannot explain variation in cooperative breeding. Lower adult mortality favours helping, not because it reduces the availability of free territories, but because it enhances the direct benefits of helpers. If density dependence acts on fecundity, lower probability of obtaining a free territory and lower survival of dispersers promote cooperative breeding. In this case, lower adult mortality works against the evolution of helping. We suggest that the difference between birds and social insects in the covariance between cooperative breeding and life-history traits is due to different mechanisms of density regulation that operate in these taxa, and we explain how natural selection on habitat choice might have caused these different mechanisms to operate.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2411-2418
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1460
Publication statusPublished - 7-Dec-2000


  • helping
  • relatedness
  • Hamilton's rule
  • fitness
  • reproductive value
  • density dependence

Cite this