Avian extrapair mating systems provide an interesting model to assess the role of genetic benefits in the evolution of female multiple mating behavior, as potentially confounding nongenetic benefits of extrapair mate choice are seen to be of minor importance. Genetic benefit models of extrapair mating behavior predict that females engage in extrapair copulations with males of higher genetic quality compared to their social mates, thereby improving offspring reproductive value. The most straightforward test of such good genes models of extrapair mating implies pairwise comparisons of maternal half-siblings raised in the same environment, which permits direct assessment of paternal genetic effects on offspring traits. But genetic benefits of mate choice may be difficult to detect. Furthermore, the extent of genetic benefits (in terms of increased offspring viability or fecundity) may depend on the environmental context such that the proposed differences between extrapair offspring (EPO) and within-pair offspring (WPO) only appear under comparatively poor environmental conditions. We tested the hypothesis that genetic benefits of female extrapair mate choice are context dependent by analyzing offspring fitness-related traits in the coal tit (Parus ater) in relation to seasonal variation in environmental conditions. Paternal genetic effects on offspring fitness were context dependent, as shown by a significant interaction effect of differential paternal genetic contribution and offspring hatching date. EPO showed a higher local recruitment probability than their maternal half-siblings if born comparatively late in the season (i.e., when overall performance had significantly declined), while WPO performed better early in the season. The same general pattern of context dependence was evident when using the number of grandchildren born to a cuckolding female via her female WPO or EPO progeny as the respective fitness measure. However, we were unable to demonstrate that cuckolding females obtained a general genetic fitness benefit from extrapair fertilizations in terms of offspring viability or fecundity. Thus, another type of benefit could be responsible for maintaining female extrapair mating preferences in the study population. Our results suggest that more than a single selective pressure may have shaped the evolution of female extrapair mating behavior in socially monogamous passerines.
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Vol. 59 • No. 3