Nest defense in the face of cuckoldry: evolutionary rather than facultative adaptation to chronic paternity loss

BMC Evol Biol. 2019 Nov 4;19(1):200. doi: 10.1186/s12862-019-1528-7.


Background: Raising unrelated offspring is typically wasteful of parental resources and so individuals are expected to reduce or maintain low levels of parental effort when their parentage is low. This can involve facultative, flexible adjustments of parental care to cues of lost parentage in the current brood, stabilizing selection for a low level of paternal investment, or an evolutionary reduction in parental investment in response to chronically low parentage.

Results: We studied parental care in Variabilichromis moorii, a socially monogamous, biparental cichlid fish, whose mating system is characterized by frequent cuckoldry and whose primary form of parental care is offspring defense. We combine field observations with genetic parentage analyses to show that while both parents defend their nest against intruding con- and hetero-specifics, males and females may do so for different reasons. Males in the study group (30 breeding pairs) sired 0-100% (median 83%) of the fry in their nests. Males defended less against immediate threats to the offspring, and more against threats to their territories, which are essential for the males' future reproductive success. Males also showed no clear relationship between their share of defense and their paternity of the brood. Females, on the other hand, were related to nearly all the offspring under their care, and defended almost equally against all types of threats.

Conclusion: Overall, males contributed less to defense than females and we suggest that this asymmetry is the result of an evolutionary response by males to chronically high paternity loss in this species. Although most males in the current study group achieved high parentage in their nests, the average paternity in V. moorii, sampled across multiple seasons, is only about 55%. We highlight the importance and complexity of studying nest defense as a form of parental care in systems where defense may serve not only to protect current offspring, but also to ensure future reproductive success by maintaining a territory.

Keywords: Cichlid; Multiple paternity; Parental care; Parental investment; Paternal care adjustment; Variabilichromis moorii.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Breeding
  • Cichlids / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Paternal Behavior
  • Reproduction
  • Seasons
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal