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Among major vertebrate groups, ray-finned fishes (Actinopterygii) collectively display a nearly unrivaled diversity of parental care activities. This fact, coupled with a growing body of phylogenetic data for Actinopterygii, makes these fishes a logical model system for analyzing the evolutionary histories of alternative parental care modes and associated reproductive behaviors. From an extensive literature review, we constructed a supertree for ray-finned fishes and used its phylogenetic topology to investigate the evolution of several key reproductive states including type of parental care (maternal, paternal, or biparental), internal versus external fertilization, internal versus external gestation, nest construction behavior, and presence versus absence of sexual dichromatism (as an indicator of sexual selection). Using a comparative phylogenetic approach, we critically evaluate several hypotheses regarding evolutionary pathways toward parental care. Results from maximum parsimony reconstructions indicate that all forms of parental care, including paternal, biparental, and maternal (both external and internal to the female reproductive tract) have arisen repeatedly and independently during ray-finned fish evolution. The most common evolutionary transitions were from external fertilization directly to paternal care and from external fertilization to maternal care via the intermediate step of internal fertilization. We also used maximum likelihood phylogenetic methods to test for statistical correlations and contingencies in the evolution of pairs of reproductive traits. Sexual dichromatism and nest construction proved to be positively correlated with the evolution of male parental care in species with external fertilization. Sexual dichromatism was also positively correlated with female-internal fertilization and gestation. No clear indication emerged that female-only care or biparental care were evolutionary outgrowths of male-only care, or that biparental care has been a common evolutionary stepping stone between paternal and maternal care. Results are discussed in the context of prior thought about the evolution of alternative parental care modes in vertebrates.

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