Social animals often form long-lasting relationships with fellow group members, usually with close kin. In primates, strong social bonds have been associated with increased longevity, offspring survival and reproductive success. However, little is known about the fitness effects of social bonds between non-kin, especially outside of mammals. In this study, we use long-term field research on a cooperatively breeding bird, the greater ani (Crotophaga major), to ask whether adult females benefit by remaining in long-term associations with unrelated, co-breeding females. We find that females that have previously nested together synchronize their reproduction more rapidly than those nesting with unfamiliar partners, which leads to lower competition and higher fledging success. Importantly, although previous experience with a co-breeding female influenced reproductive synchrony, the degree of reproductive synchrony did not influence whether co-breeding females remained together in subsequent years, ruling out the alternate hypothesis that highly synchronized females are simply more likely to remain together. These results indicate that switching groups is costly to females, and that social familiarity improves reproductive coordination. Stable social relationships therefore have significant fitness consequences for cooperatively nesting female birds, suggesting that direct benefits alone may favour the evolution of associations between non-relatives and contribute to long-term group stability.
Keywords: Crotophaga major; cooperation; cooperative breeding; group stability; social affiliation; social bond.
© 2018 The Author(s).