How male reed warblers ensure their paternity

To ensure paternity, male reed warblers aggressively try to chase off competitors and to keep potentially "double-dealing" females in line, a new study has found.

Washington: To ensure paternity, male reed warblers aggressively try to chase off competitors and to keep potentially "double-dealing" females in line, a new study has found.

But whether or not they manage, they turn out to be caring fathers once the babies are born, the researchers said.

Herbert Hoi and colleagues of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, together with scientists from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, carried out experiments with reed warblers to see how a situation of potential infidelity affects later paternal investment in the chicks and whether it does in fact lead to extra-pair mating.

Scientists of the Konrad-Lorenz-Institute of Ethology of the Vetmeduni Vienna for the first time tried to experimentally test the behaviour of reed warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) after a potential act of "cheating" by the female.

How does the male treat a competitor, and how does an "affair" affect care for the brood? To answer these questions they simulated an increased risk of adulterous behaviour in female reed warblers by briefly introducing a caged extra male to 31 reed warbler pairs during the female`s fertile period.

In addition they played back recorded songs of randomly selected warbler males from the area. The scientists then observed nest building activity and feeding of offspring, and determined chick paternity through DNA analyses.

Herbert Hoi and his colleagues observed that all males tried to attack and chase away the caged intruder. When the female appeared to show interest in the intruder, the male behaved considerably more aggressively, both to the intruder and to his female partner.

Almost half of the females did not even approach the newcomer. Herbert Hoi explained, "We think that the males are more aggressive when their partners are watching because first, it only pays for the male to show off when the "babe" is watching him, and second, he certainly has more reason to fear being cuckolded or even losing his partner when the newcomer approaches his female."

Hoi and colleagues found that many nests housed nestlings fathered outside the pair-bond. This was the case both in the experimental and in the control group. Those females that had been observed to show interest in the intruder were also later found to be more likely to have extra-pair chicks in their nest.

In addition, the results suggest that larger females seem to be more promiscuous.

The researchers then looked at whether offspring care was affected by paternity uncertainty. The results were surprising: Males seem to readily procure food for the chicks, regardless whether they are their own or not. Females, however, cared significantly less for their young if they had been faced with the simulated intruder.

Perhaps the female`s potential infidelity had no effect on the male`s subsequent feeding investment because he cannot distinguish his own from an extra-pair chick.

On the other hand, females who perceived their males as unable to repel an intruder quickly enough and therefore as a "weakling", then invest less in the joint offspring.

The only chance a male has to ensure successful paternity seems to be to quickly get rid of potential competitors.

The findings were published in April 2013 in the online journal PLOS ONE.