Sarah Guindre-Parker and Dustin R. Rubenstein
The cost of reproduction results in a life-history trade-off where investment in current reproduction via costly parental care decreases subsequent fitness. Although this trade-off is thought to occur ubiquitously across animals, there is equivocal evidence that parental care behaviours are costly. A major challenge of studying the cost of parental care has been a lack of consensus over which physiological mechanisms underlie this trade-off. Here, we compare four traits believed to mediate the cost of parental care by examining whether glucocorticoids, oxidative stress, immune function or body condition represent a cost of performing offspring care and shape subsequent fitness. We use a 4 year dataset collected in free-living cooperatively breeding superb starlings (Lamprotornis superbus), a species in which parental and alloparental care effort varies widely among individuals and across years. Our results showed that within-individual change in physiology was unrelated to investment in offspring care, and physiological state during chick rearing did not predict the likelihood that an individual would breed in subsequent seasons. Instead, individuals that had elevated baseline corticosterone during incubation performed more nest guarding, suggesting that this hormone may play a preparatory role for investing in offspring care. Together, our results indicate that superb starlings modify their investment in offspring care according to their physiological state during incubation, despite there being no evidence of a short-term physiological cost of parental or alloparental care. Thus, breeding cooperatively appears to provide individuals with the flexibility to adjust their investment in offspring care and overcome any potential costs of reproduction.