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Cooperation facilitates the colonization of harsh environments

  • Charlie K. Cornwallis
  • Carlos A. Botero
  • Dustin R. Rubenstein
  • Philip A. Downing
  • Stuart A. West
  • Ashleigh S. Griffin
Publishing year: 2017
Language: English
Publication/Series: Nature Ecology & Evolution
Volume: 1
Issue: 3
Document type: Journal article

Abstract english

Animals living in harsh environments, where temperatures are hot and rainfall is unpredictable, are more likely to breed in cooperative groups. As a result, harsh environmental conditions have been accepted as a key factor explaining the evolution of cooperation. However, this is based on evidence that has not investigated the order of evolutionary events, so the inferred causality could be incorrect. We resolved this problem using phylogenetic analyses of 4,707 bird species and found that causation was in the opposite direction to that previously assumed. Rather than harsh environments favouring cooperation, cooperative
breeding has facilitated the colonization of harsh environments. Cooperative breeding was, in fact, more likely to evolve from ancestors occupying relatively cool environmental niches with predictable rainfall, which had low levels of polyandry and hence high within-group relatedness. We also found that polyandry increased after cooperative breeders invaded harsh environments,
suggesting that when helpers have limited options to breed independently, polyandry no longer destabilizes cooperation. This provides an explanation for the puzzling cases of polyandrous cooperative breeding birds. More generally, this illustrates how cooperation can play a key role in invading ecological niches, a pattern observed across all levels of biological organization from cells to animal societies.


  • Ecology


  • Molecular Ecology and Evolution Lab
Charlie Cornwallis
E-mail: charlie [dot] cornwallis [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

Senior lecturer


+46 46 222 30 26


Sölvegatan 37, Lund


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Doctoral students and postdocs

PhD students, main supervisor

PhD students, assistant supervisor