Sociality is a life-history trait that, as a part of a syndrome of other life-history traits, should influence longevity. The logic stems from observations that more social species delay onset of reproduction, produce fewer young and have higher infant survival rates (Blumstein & Armitage 1998
), and that sociality may reduce predation risk (Krause & Ruxton 2002
), and therefore extrinsic mortality rate, which evolutionary models of senescence predict will influence longevity (Ricklefs 1998
Evolutionary theories of senescence predict that longevity should be associated with extrinsic mortality (Abrams 1993
). Specifically, species with high-mortality rates should have reduced maximum lifespan (e.g. Austad & Fischer 1991
; Holmes & Austad 1994
; Wilkinson & South 2002
). Because mortality rate is, in part, the result of life-history trade-offs (theoretically, animals could allocate most of their energy to defence and none to reproduction), those that choose not to allocate energy to defence should first reproduce before those who have the luxury of a greater annual survival rate.
Body size may reduce mortality risk if larger species have fewer predators than smaller species (e.g. Werner & Gilliam 1984
) and also may increase the mortality risk if large-bodied species attract predators (Wolff & Guthrie 1985
; Ebensperger & Blumstein 2006
). In those cases where large body size increases survival, larger species should live longer. Alternatively, increased body size may select for sociality to reduce predation risk (Ebensperger & Blumstein 2006
), and the increased sociality of larger species may itself be associated with high longevity.
Perhaps more importantly, complex sociality is associated with the reproductive division of labour and emergence of social roles (Cahan et al. 2002
). Such roles may include non-breeding helpers, which may mature into breeders, but who will have foregone direct fitness while helping. Thus, it is reasonable to quantify the relevant importance of sociality versus other factors in the evolution of high longevity.
Students of vertebrate cooperative breeding have developed the ‘life-history hypothesis of cooperative breeding’ which links annual survival (a factor that influences longevity) to cooperative breeding (e.g. Brown 1987
; Arnold & Owens 1998
; Covas & Griesser 2007
). While being relevant, this hypothesis seeks to explain the evolution of cooperative breeding, not longevity, and thus important confounding variables that may influence longevity are sometimes excluded from tests.
There have been direct tests of the ‘sociality–longevity hypothesis’. Keller & Genoud (1997)
and Carey (2001)
found relationships between sociality and longevity in insects, while Wilkinson & South (2002)
included colony size in an analysis of the effects of hibernation on longevity in bats. Bat lifespan increased with hibernation, body mass and occasional cave use, but colony size had no effect on longevity. These studies did not control for some important confounding variables. Møller (2006)
tested the sociality–longevity relationship with a study of European birds, using colony size as a metric of sociality. In a series of analyses that controlled for confounding variables (sampling effort, body mass, age at first reproduction and adult survival rate), he found that body mass, sampling effort and age at first reproduction had the strongest effects in the analysis based on species-specific data, while body mass and sampling effort had the strongest effects in the analysis of independent contrasts. Colony size was a weakly significant predictor in the species-specific data, but not in the analysis of independent contrasts. Further analyses revealed that this weak effect of coloniality was entirely accounted for by colonial species, on average, starting to reproduce at an older age than solitarily breeding species. Together, these results provide little support for the sociality–longevity hypothesis in vertebrates.
However, both previous vertebrate studies used colony size as a metric of sociality, and tests of the life-history hypothesis of cooperative breeding have not controlled for other important factors that may influence longevity. Coloniality, per se
, does not address the types of relationships and social roles that should select for high longevity because while colonial animals are co-located, they may not engage in any meaningful social interactions. Moreover, recent comparative evidence suggests that coloniality increases predation risk, and thus decreases annual survival (Varela et al. 2007
), which itself is associated with longevity.
We evaluated the sociality–longevity hypothesis by examining the association between cooperative parental care and longevity. Species that cooperatively breed or engage in cooperative parental care are those that have social relationships and reproductive division of labour. Cooperative parental care occurs in 612 (9%) of all species of birds and 36 (6.5%) of North American birds (Cockburn 2006
). We tested the sociality–longevity hypothesis in North American birds.