In highly social species, dominant individuals often monopolize reproduction, resulting in reproductive investment that is status dependent. Yet, for subordinates, who typically invest less in reproduction, social status can change and opportunities to ascend to dominant social positions are presented suddenly, requiring abrupt changes in behaviour and physiology. In this study, we examined male reproductive anatomy, physiology and behaviour following experimental manipulations of social status in the cooperatively breeding cichlid fish,
Neolamprologus pulcher. This unusual fish species lives in permanent social groups composed of a dominant breeding pair and 1–20 subordinates that form a linear social dominance hierarchy. By removing male breeders, we created 18 breeding vacancies and thus provided an opportunity for subordinate males to ascend in status. Dominant females play an important role in regulating status change, as males successfully ascended to breeder status only when they were slightly larger than the female breeder in their social group. Ascending males rapidly assumed behavioural dominance, demonstrated elevated gonadal investment and androgen concentrations compared with males remaining socially subordinate. Interestingly, to increase gonadal investment ascending males appeared to temporarily restrain somatic growth. These results highlight the complex interactions between social status, reproductive physiology and group dynamics, and underscore a convergent pattern of reproductive investment among highly social, cooperative species.