The evolution of parental care is beneficial if it facilitates offspring performance traits that are ultimately tied to offspring fitness. While this may seem self-evident, the benefits of parental care have received relatively little theoretical exploration. Here, we develop a theoretical model that elucidates how parental care can affect offspring performance and which aspects of offspring performance (e.g., survival, development) are likely to be influenced by care.
We begin by summarizing four general types of parental care benefits. Care can be beneficial if parents (1) increase offspring survival during the stage in which parents and offspring are associated, (2) improve offspring quality in a way that leads to increased offspring survival and/or reproduction in the future when parents are no longer associated with offspring, and/or (3) directly increase offspring reproductive success when parents and offspring remain associated into adulthood. We additionally suggest that parental control over offspring developmental rate might represent a substantial, yet underappreciated, benefit of care. We hypothesize that parents adjust the amount of time offspring spend in life-history stages in response to expected offspring mortality, which in turn might increase overall offspring survival, and ultimately, fitness of parents and offspring. Using a theoretical evolutionary framework, we show that parental control over offspring developmental rate can represent a significant, or even the sole, benefit of care. Considering this benefit influences our general understanding of the evolution of care, as parental control over offspring developmental rate can increase the range of life-history conditions (e.g., egg and juvenile mortalities) under which care can evolve.