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Flexible parental care: Uniparental incubation in biparentally incubating shorebirds

  • Bulla, Martin1
  • Prüter, Hanna1, 2
  • Vitnerová, Hana1, 3
  • Tijsen, Wim4
  • Sládeček, Martin5
  • Alves, José A.6, 7
  • Gilg, Olivier8, 9
  • Kempenaers, Bart1
  • 1 Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Department of Behavioural Ecology & Evolutionary Genetics, Seewiesen, Germany , Seewiesen (Germany)
  • 2 Leibniz Institute for Zoo- and Wildlife Research, Department of Wildlife Diseases, Berlin, Germany , Berlin (Germany)
  • 3 Charles University in Prague, Department of Zoology, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic , Prague (Czechia)
  • 4 Poelweg 12, Westerland, 1778 KB, The Netherlands , Westerland (Netherlands)
  • 5 Czech University of Life Sciences, Department of Ecology, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic , Prague (Czechia)
  • 6 University of Aveiro, Department of Biology & Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies, Aveiro, Portugal , Aveiro (Portugal)
  • 7 University of Iceland, South Iceland Research Centre, Selfoss, Iceland , Selfoss (Iceland)
  • 8 Université de Bourgogne Franche Comté, Equipe Ecologie Evolution, UMR 6282 Biogéosciences, 6 Bd Gabriel, Dijon, 21000, France , Dijon (France)
  • 9 Groupe de Recherche en Ecologie Arctique, 16 Rue de Vernot, Francheville, 21440, France , Francheville (France)
Published Article
Scientific Reports
Springer Nature
Publication Date
Oct 16, 2017
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-13005-y
Springer Nature


The relative investment of females and males into parental care might depend on the population’s adult sex-ratio. For example, all else being equal, males should be the more caring sex if the sex-ratio is male biased. Whether such outcomes are evolutionary fixed (i.e. related to the species’ typical sex-ratio) or whether they arise through flexible responses of individuals to the current population sex-ratio remains unclear. Nevertheless, a flexible response might be limited by the evolutionary history of the species, because one sex may have lost the ability to care or because a single parent cannot successfully raise the brood. Here, we demonstrate that after the disappearance of one parent, individuals from 8 out of 15 biparentally incubating shorebird species were able to incubate uniparentally for 1–19 days (median = 3, N = 69). Moreover, their daily incubation rhythm often resembled that of obligatory uniparental shorebird species. Although it has been suggested that in some biparental shorebirds females desert their brood after hatching, we found both sexes incubating uniparentally. Strikingly, in 27% of uniparentally incubated clutches - from 5 species - we documented successful hatching. Our data thus reveal the potential for a flexible switch from biparental to uniparental care.

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