Age increases chance of success as two-timer

Oct 23, 2007

The coal tit appears to live a strictly monogamous life. Couples often stay together for their whole lives. That's only a facade. This indigenous songbird is among the top ten two-timers worldwide. That is what research by biologists at the University of Bonn shows. For this they have taken genetic fingerprints from more than 200 breeding couples and their young. In this way they were able to identify the biological father in 90 per cent of the nestlings.

According to this research older coal tit males were particularly successful at cheating on their partner. They produced significantly more 'cuckoo kids' than younger males. The results have now been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology (doi: 10.1093/beheco/arm082).

Germany's most researched population of coal tits lives in a coniferous forest in Lower Saxony, in Emsland, very near the town of Lingen, to be more precise. Dr. Wolfgang Winkel from the Institute of Ornithological Research (Instut fur Vogelforschung) at the Heligoland Ornithological Station has for decades been studying the coal tits that live here. Many of the birds are ringed, so that their exact age is known. 'It really is an exceptionally good set of data which we were able to access,' the Bonn evolutionary biologist Dr. Tim Schmoll explains.

In conjunction with his colleague Professor Thomas Lubjuhn he investigated how often coal tits cheat upon their spouses and what role their age plays in this. 'For this we did paternity tests on more than 200 breeding couples and their offspring in 2000 and 2001,' he explains. With the aid of a 'genetic fingerprint' the researchers were able to match the biological father to the nestlings in nine out of ten cases.

For coal tits are only monogamous on the surface. The partners often stay together for the rest of their life and Mum and Dad take care of their joint offspring together. But are the young really always the offspring of the father who is taking care of the brood" The genetic data tell a completely different story: 'With the primary brood in May, every third nestling is from a two-timing spouse, with the second brood in June, it's even every second one,' Tim Schmoll says. 'With the second brood coal tits are among the top 10 world wide who have'extra-marital affairs'!"

'Greenhorns' father fewer 'cuckoo kids'

Older males succeed considerably more often in palming off a 'cuckoo kid' on their rivals than 'greenhorns' do. In their first year of breeding, male coal tits father only 0.3 'extra-marital offspring' on average. In the years after this, they manage to get almost two young per season into their rivals' nests. But in doing so, they do not neglect their own female. The success of their 'regular' procreation is not affected by trespassing on foreign territory. 'We carried out our study in two different years, in order to see whether our observations were reproducible,' Tim Schmoll explains. 'The effect of age is very significant and reliable. However, other factors such as singing, attract-tiveness of plumage or social status are probably also of significance for their success as Casanovas.

But why are the older coal tits more successful at cheating" Is this due to the fact that females tend to fall for the older seducers rather than the younger ones" The ones that survive long should have good genes, maybe these genes are therefore par- ticularly popular. A preference of the females for more mature males would be rewarded with offspring which are particularly fitted to survive and be favoured in the course of evolution.

The study, funded by the German Research Association (Deutsche Forschungs-gemeinschaft, the DFG), does not draw any final conclusions yet. 'We presume that the male's experience also plays a significant role.' In that case, older males may well know better than 'greenhorns' when they can flirt with their neighbour and leave their own female alone safely, without running the risk that a rival will exploit this oppor-tunity. More experienced coal tit males might also behave more rationally with the care of the brood. With their first offspring they've got their wings full, so to speak, so there's simply no time for a bit on the side.

Source: University of Bonn

Explore further: Famed Galapagos tortoise 'Pepe the Missionary' dies

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

US won't reveal records on health website security

2 hours ago

The Obama administration has concluded it will not publicly disclose federal records that could shed light on the security of the government's signature health care website because doing so could "potentially" allow hackers ...

Recommended for you

Researchers look at small RNA pathways in maize tassels

20 hours ago

Researchers at the University of Delaware and other institutions across the country have been awarded a four-year, $6.5 million National Science Foundation grant to analyze developmental events in maize anthers ...

How plant cell compartments change with cell growth

20 hours ago

A research team led by Kiminori Toyooka from the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science has developed a sophisticated microscopy technique that for the first time captures the detailed movement of ...

Plants can 'switch off' virus DNA

20 hours ago

A team of virologists and plant geneticists at Wageningen UR has demonstrated that when tomato plants contain Ty-1 resistance to the important Tomato yellow leaf curl virus (TYLCV), parts of the virus DNA ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Elenneth
not rated yet Oct 23, 2007
Quite interesting. Age (which is often equated to experience) can really pay off in this case. Yet another "society" of outwardly monogamous couples under scrutiny reveals itself to be a most interesting network of extra-maritial affairs.

I suppose in an evolutionary view this is actually provinicial for the species, as those male birds with traits that have been selected for (i.e. more "fit" individuals) are passing on their genes to a greater number of offspring than those younger (read: less experienced) males whose traits may prove to be selected against by nature in the long run.
vlam67
not rated yet Oct 24, 2007
In my humble opinion, in humans perhaps older males are more financially secure, more experienced in dealing with the other sex, and with both sexes' biological clocks are making louder noises, moral qualms,inhibitions and standards are lowered.