Dominant nestlings displaying female-like melanin coloration behave altruistically in the barn owl

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Alexandre Roulin, Arnaud Da Silva, Charlène A. Ruppli
Animal Behaviour
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When competing over parental resources, young animals may be typically selfish to the point of siblicide. This suggests that limited parental resources promote the evolution of sibling competition rather than altruistic or cooperative behaviours. In striking contrast, we show here that in 71% of experimental three-chick broods, nestling barn owls, Tyto alba, gave food to their siblings on average twice per night. This behaviour prevailed in the first-born dominant nestlings rather than the last-born subordinate nestlings. It was also more prevalent in individuals displaying a heritable dark phaeomelanin-based coloration, a typical female-specific plumage trait (owls vary from dark reddish to white, females being on average darker reddish than males). Stealing food items from siblings, which occurred in 81% of the nests, was more frequent in light than dark phaeomelanic dominant nestlings. We suggest that food sharing has evolved in the barn owl because parents store prey items in their nest that can be used by the offspring to feed their nestmates to derive indirect (kin selection) or direct benefits (pseudoreciprocity or by-product mutualism). The cost of feeding siblings may be relatively low for dominant individuals while the indirect genetic benefits could be high given that extrapair paternity is infrequent in this species. Thus, in situations in which young animals have access to more food resources than they currently need, they can altruistically share them with their siblings.


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