The relationship between egg size and helper number in cooperative breeders: a meta-analysis across species

Tanmay Dixit, Sinead English, Dieter Lukas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
295 Downloads (Pure)


Life history theory predicts that mothers should adjust reproductive investment depending on benefits of current reproduction and costs of reduced future reproductive success. These costs and benefits may in turn depend on the breeding female’s social environment. Cooperative breeders provide an ideal system to test whether changes in maternal investment are associated with the social conditions mothers experience. As alloparental helpers assist in offspring care, larger groups might reduce reproductive costs for mothers or alternatively indicate attractive conditions for reproduction. Thus, mothers may show reduced (load-lightening) or increased (differential allocation) reproductive investment in relation to group size. A growing number of studies have investigated how cooperatively breeding mothers adjust pre-natal investment depending on group size. Our aim was to survey these studies to assess, first, whether mothers consistently reduce or increase pre-natal investment when in larger groups and, second, whether these changes relate to variation in post-natal investment.

We extracted data on the relationship between helper number and maternal pre-natal investment (egg size) from 12 studies on 10 species of cooperatively breeding vertebrates. We performed meta-analyses to calculate the overall estimated relationship between egg size and helper number, and to quantify variation among species. We also tested whether these relationships are stronger in species in which the addition of helpers is associated with significant changes in maternal and helper post-natal investment.

Across studies, there is a significant negative relationship between helper number and egg size, suggesting that in most instances mothers show reduced reproductive investment in larger groups, in particular in species in which mothers also show a significant reduction in post-natal investment. However, even in this limited sample, substantial variation exists in the relationship between helper number and egg size, and the overall effect appears to be driven by a few well-studied species.

Our results, albeit based on a small sample of studies and species, indicate that cooperatively breeding females tend to produce smaller eggs in larger groups. These findings on prenatal investment accord with previous studies showing similar load-lightening reductions in postnatal parental effort (leading to concealed helper effects), but do not provide empirical support for differential allocation. However, the considerable variation in effect size across studies suggests that maternal investment is mitigated by additional factors. Our findings indicate that variation in the social environment may influence life-history strategies and suggest that future studies investigating within-individual changes in maternal investment in cooperative breeders offer a fruitful avenue to study the role of adaptive plasticity.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere4028
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 24 Nov 2017


  • Maternal effects
  • Life-history
  • Cooperative breeding
  • Meta-analysis
  • Egg size
  • Reproductive investment


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