Pair bonding is generally linked to monogamous mating systems, where the reproductive benefits of extended mate guarding and/or of bi-parental care are considered key adaptive functions. However, in some species, including coral reef butterflyfishes (f. Chaetodonitidae), pair bonding occurs in sexually immature and homosexual partners, and in the absence of parental care, suggesting there must be non-reproductive adaptive benefits of pair bonding. Here, we examined whether pair bonding butterflyfishes cooperate in defense of food, conferring direct benefits to one or both partners. We found that pairs of Chaetodon lunulatus and C. baronessa use contrasting cooperative strategies. In C. lunulatus, both partners mutually defend their territory, while in C. baronessa, males prioritize territory defence; conferring improvements in feeding and energy reserves in both sexes relative to solitary counterparts. We further demonstrate that partner fidelity contributes to this function by showing that re-pairing invokes intra-pair conflict and inhibits cooperatively-derived feeding benefits, and that partner endurance is required for these costs to abate. Overall, our results suggest that in butterflyfishes, pair bonding enhances cooperative defense of prey resources, ultimately benefiting both partners by improving food resource acquisition and energy reserves.
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