Sandpipers and allies (Scolopacidae) show an astounding diversity in mating and parental care strategies. Comparative studies have tried to interpret this variation in terms of phylogenetic constraints and ecological shaping factors. In such analyses, mating and parental care systems are necessarily discretely classified at the species level. The few available descriptive studies on breeding strategies of the Sanderling (Calidris alba) came to variable conclusions, which, in turn, were inconsistently used in these comparative studies. We provide empirical data on mating and parental care patterns in Sanderlings studied during six summers in northeast Greenland. In 135 clutches, we determined parental care from incubation profiles using temperature loggers and confirmed that both uniparental incubation by both sexes and biparental incubation (45 and 90 clutches, respectively) occurred. We used microsatellite-based parentage analyses to describe the degree of extrapair mating. In 48 completely assayed families, we found 6 cases of polygamy (4 cases of polyandry, 2 cases of polygyny) that involved both uniparental and biparental clutches. This implies substantial variation in the patterns of mating and parental care, defying categorical assignments even at the local level. We conclude that the classification of mating strategy and parental care pattern for the Sanderling has been rather coarse, and that comparative analyses have not taken the observed intrapopulation variability into account. Because sandpipers show such variable reproductive behavior, between and within species, more detailed descriptive studies using parentage analyses are required to revisit previous statements about the intensity of sexual selection, including sexual size dimorphism, in shorebirds. In view of the great variability, methods of comparison will need elaboration too.
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