Polygyny and male parental care in Savannah sparrows: effects on female fitness

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Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology




To determine the effects of male mating status on female fitness, we compared the reproductive success, survival, and future fecundity of female Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) mated to monogamous vs. polygynous males in a 5-year study on Kent Island, New Brunswick, Canada. The proportion of males with more than one mate varied from 15 to 43% between years and sites. Polygynous and monogamous males fledged young of equal size in every year of the study. Females who shared paternal care with other females laid as many eggs per clutch and clutches per season as monogamously mated females. In most years polygynously mated females showed no delay in laying a second clutch, and they suffered no reduction in fecundity the following year. Recruitment of a female's offspring into the breeding population was generally independent of her mating status. Fitness costs of being mated to a polygynous male were only apparent in one year of the study, during which females mated to polygynous males had higher over-winter mortality than those mated to monogamous males. That same year, young raised by polygynous males were only one-third as likely to survive to reproductive maturity (as inferred by returns) as those raised by monogamous males. A male's mating status had no effect on his own survivorship. A male's mating status did not necessarily reflect his contributions to raising nestlings, which may partially explain why monogamously and polygynously mated females had equal fitness. At 35 nests the proportion of food deliveries brought by individual males varied from 0 to 75%; on average, males brought fewer than 30% of all food deliveries. Yet parental care by polygynous males was no less than that of monogamous males, at least at the nests of their primary females. Secondary females tended to receive less male assistance during the nestling stage, but their reproductive success was indistinguishable from that of primary females. Females feeding young without male assistance made as many food deliveries/h as did pairs in which males brought at least 30% of all food deliveries. Unassisted females did not suffer diminished fledging success or produce smaller fledglings. The benefits of polygyny for male Savannah sparrows are clear: polygynous males recruit more surviving offspring into the breeding population than monogamous males. The fitness of females, on the other hand, appears to be unaffected by whether their mate was monogamous or polygynous except in occasional years. Polygyny may be maintained in this population by the constraints of a female-biased sex ratio, the inability of females to predict a male's paternal care based on his morphology or behavior, the poor correlation between a male's mating status and his assistance at the nest, and inconsistent natural selection against mating with a polygynous male.