Evolutionary change in the construction of the nursery environment when parents are prevented from caring for their young directly.
Parental care can be partitioned into traits that involve direct engagement with offspring and traits that are expressed as an extended phenotype and influence the developmental environment, such as constructing a nursery. Here, we use experimental evolution to test whether parents can evolve modifications in nursery construction when they are experimentally prevented from supplying care directly to offspring. We exposed replicate experimental populations of burying beetles (Nicrophorus vespilloides) to different regimes of posthatching care by allowing larvae to develop in the presence (Full Care) or absence of parents (No Care). After only 13 generations of experimental evolution, we found an adaptive evolutionary increase in the pace at which parents in the No Care populations converted a dead body into a carrion nest for larvae. Cross-fostering experiments further revealed that No Care larvae performed better on a carrion nest prepared by No Care parents than did Full Care larvae. We conclude that parents construct the nursery environment in relation to their effectiveness at supplying care directly, after offspring are born. When direct care is prevented entirely, they evolve to make compensatory adjustments to the nursery in which their young will develop. The rapid evolutionary change observed in our experiments suggests there is considerable standing genetic variation for parental care traits in natural burying beetle populations-for reasons that remain unclear.
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