Experimental evidence that group size generates divergent benefits of cooperative breeding for male and female ostriches

Julian Melgar, Mads F. Schou, Maud Bonato, Zanell Brand, Anel Engelbrecht, Schalk W. P. Cloete, Charlie K. Cornwallis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cooperative breeding allows the costs of parental care to be shared, but as groups become larger, such benefits often decline as competition increases and group cohesion breaks down. The counteracting forces of cooperation and competition are predicted to select for an optimal group size, but variation in groups is ubiquitous across cooperative breeding animals. Here, we experimentally test if group sizes vary because of sex differences in the costs and benefits of cooperative breeding in captive ostriches, Struthio camelus, and compare this to the distribution of group sizes in the wild. We established 96 groups with different numbers of males (1 or 3) and females (1, 3, 4, or 6) and manipulated opportunities for cooperation over incubation. There was a clear optimal group size for males (one male with four or more females) that was explained by high costs of competition and negligible benefits of cooperation. Conversely, female reproductive success was maximised across a range of group sizes due to the benefits of cooperation with male and female group members. Reproductive success in intermediate sized groups was low for both males and females due to sexual conflict over the timing of mating and incubation. Our experiments show that sex differences in cooperation and competition can explain group size variation in cooperative breeders.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere77170
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Behavioral Sciences Biology
  • Evolutionary Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'Experimental evidence that group size generates divergent benefits of cooperative breeding for male and female ostriches'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this