The Evolution of Delayed Dispersal in Cooperative Breeders

Q Rev Biol. 1992 Jun;67(2):111-50. doi: 10.1086/417552.


Why do the young of cooperative breeders--species in which more than two individuals help raise offspring at a single nest--delay dispersal and live in groups? Answering this deceptively simple question involves examining the costs and benefits of three alternative strategies: (1) dispersal and attempting to breed, (2) dispersal and floating, and (3) delayed dispersal and helping. If, all other things being equal, the fitness of individuals that delay dispersal is greater than the fitness of individuals that disperse and breed on their own, intrinsic benefits are paramount to the current maintenance of delayed dispersal. Intrinsic benefits are directly due to living with others and may include enhanced foraging efficiency and reduced susceptibility to predation. However, if individuals that disperse and attempt to breed in high-quality habitat achieve the highest fitness, extrinsic constraints on the ability of offspring to obtain such high-quality breeding opportunities force offspring to either delay dispersal or float. The relevant constraint to independent reproduction has frequently been termed habitat saturation. This concept, of itself, fails to explain the evolution of delayed dispersal. Instead, we propose the delayed-dispersal threshold model as a guide for organizing and evaluating the ecological factors potentially responsible for this phenomenon. We identify five parameters critical to the probability of delayed dispersal: relative population density, the fitness differential between early dispersal/breeding and delayed dispersal, the observed or hypothetical fitness of floaters, the distribution of territory quality, and spatiotemporal environmental variability. A key conclusion from the model is that no one factor by itself causes delayed dispersal and cooperative breeding. However, a difference in the dispersal patterns between two closely related species or populations (or between individuals in the same population in different years) may be attributable to one or a small set of factors. Much remains to be done to pinpoint the relative importance of different ecological factors in promoting delayed dispersal. This is underscored by our current inability to explain satisfactorily several patterns including the relative significance of floating, geographic biases in the incidence of cooperative breeding, sexual asymmetries in delayed dispersal, the relationship between delayed dispersal leading to helping behavior and cooperative polygamy, and the rarity of the co-occurrence of helpers and floaters within the same population. Advances in this field remain to be made along several fronts.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Helping Behavior
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Reproduction*