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Helpers and egg investment in the cooperatively breeding acorn woodpecker: testing the concealed helper effects hypothesis


In cooperatively breeding acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus), helper males have a large positive effect on fledging success in good acorn crop years but only a small positive effect in poor acorn crop years, while helper females exhibit the opposite pattern. Based on these findings, we tested the “concealed helper effects” hypothesis, which proposes that laying females reduce investment in eggs (with respect to their size, number, or quality) in a way that confounds helper effects and results in an absence of a relationship between helpers and breeding success. Results generally failed to support the hypothesis. Mean egg size was positively related to temperatures during the 10 days prior to egg-laying and negatively related to the food supply as indexed by the prior fall’s acorn crop, but there were no significant differences vis-à-vis helpers except for interactions with the acorn crop that only partly corresponded to those predicted. With respect to clutch size, females laid larger clutches when assisted by female helpers, opposite the pattern predicted. Although our results suggest that egg size is adjusted to particular ecological circumstances, we conclude that neither egg nor clutch size is adjusted in a way that confounds the apparent effects of helpers, as proposed by the concealed helper effects hypothesis.

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