ABSTRACT: Interspecific arms races between cuckoos and their hosts have produced remarkable examples of mimicry, with parasite eggs evolving to match host egg appearance and so evade removal by hosts. Certain bronze-cuckoo species, however, lay eggs that are cryptic rather than mimetic. These eggs are coated in a low luminance pigment that camouflages them within the dark interiors of hosts' nests. We investigated whether cuckoo egg crypsis is likely to have arisen from the same coevolutionary processes known to favour egg mimicry. We added high and low luminance-painted eggs to the nests of large-billed gerygones (Gerygone magnirostris), a host of the little bronze-cuckoo (Chalcites minutillus). Gerygones rarely rejected either egg type, and did not reject natural cuckoo eggs. Cuckoos, by contrast, regularly removed an egg from clutches before laying their own and were five times more likely to remove a high luminance model than its low luminance counterpart. Given that we found one-third of all parasitized nests were exploited by multiple cuckoos, our results suggest that competition between cuckoos has been the key selective agent for egg crypsis. In such intraspecific arms races, crypsis may be favoured over mimicry because it can reduce the risk of egg removal to levels below chance.
Project description:BACKGROUND: Avian brood parasites and their hosts are involved in complex offence-defense coevolutionary arms races. The most common pair of reciprocal adaptations in these systems is egg discrimination by hosts and egg mimicry by parasites. As mimicry improves, more advanced host adaptations evolve such as decreased intra- and increased interclutch variation in egg appearance to facilitate detection of parasitic eggs. As interclutch variation increases, parasites able to choose hosts matching best their own egg phenotype should be selected, but this requires that parasites know their own egg phenotype and select host nests correspondingly. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We compared egg mimicry of common cuckoo Cuculus canorus eggs in naturally parasitized marsh warbler Acrocephalus palustris nests and their nearest unparasitized conspecific neighbors having similar laying dates and nest-site characteristics. Modeling of avian vision and image analyses revealed no evidence that cuckoos parasitize nests where their eggs better match the host eggs. Cuckoo eggs were as good mimics, in terms of background and spot color, background luminance, spotting pattern and egg size, of host eggs in the nests actually exploited as those in the neighboring unparasitized nests. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: We reviewed the evidence for brood parasites selecting better-matching host egg phenotypes from several relevant studies and argue that such selection probably cannot exist in host-parasite systems where host interclutch variation is continuous and overall low or moderate. To date there is also no evidence that parasites prefer certain egg phenotypes in systems where it should be most advantageous, i.e., when both hosts and parasites lay polymorphic eggs. Hence, the existence of an ability to select host nests to maximize mimicry by brood parasites appears unlikely, but this possibility should be further explored in cuckoo-host systems where the host has evolved discrete egg phenotypes.
Project description:Brood parasitic cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests, whereafter the young cuckoo hatches, ejects its nest-mates and monopolizes the care of the host parents. Theory predicts that hosts should not evolve to recognize and reject cuckoo chicks via imprinting because of the risk of mistakenly imprinting on a cuckoo chick in their first brood and thereafter always rejecting their own chicks. However, recent studies have revealed that some hosts do reject cuckoo chicks from the nest, indicating that these hosts' recognition systems either do not rely on first brood imprinting, or use cues that are independent of chick phenotype. Here, we investigate the proximate mechanisms of chick rejection behaviour in the large-billed gerygone (Gerygone magnirostris), a host of the little bronze-cuckoo (Chalcites minutillus). We find that gerygones use true template-based recognition based on at least one visual chick trait (the number of hatchling down-feathers), and that this is further mediated by experience of adult cuckoos at the nest during egg-laying. Given the theoretical constraints of acquiring recognition templates via imprinting, gerygones must possess a template of own-chick appearance that is largely innate. This true recognition has facilitated the evolution of very rapid hatchling rejection and, in turn, striking visual mimicry of host young by little bronze-cuckoo chicks.
Project description:The evolution of brood parasitism has long attracted considerable attention among behavioural ecologists, especially in the common cuckoo system. Common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) are obligatory brood parasites, laying eggs in nests of passerines and specializing on specific host species. Specialized races of cuckoos are genetically distinct. Often in a given area, cuckoos encounter multiple hosts showing substantial variation in egg morphology. Exploiting different hosts should lead to egg-phenotype specialization in cuckoos to match egg phenotypes of the hosts. Here we test this assumption using a wild population of two sympatrically occurring host species: the great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) and reed warbler (A. scirpaceus). Using colour spectrophotometry, egg shell dynamometry and egg size measurements, we studied egg morphologies of cuckoos parasitizing these two hosts. In spite of observing clear differences between host egg phenotypes, we found no clear differences in cuckoo egg morphologies. Interestingly, although chromatically cuckoo eggs were more similar to reed warbler eggs, after taking into account achromatic differences, cuckoo eggs seemed to be equally similar to both host species. We hypothesize that such pattern may represent an initial stage of an averaging strategy of cuckoos, that--instead of specializing for specific hosts or exploiting only one host--adapt to multiple hosts.
Project description:The common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is an avian brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of other bird species, where these hosts incubate the parasitic eggs, feed and rear the nestlings. The appearance of a cuckoo egg in a host nest may change the bacterial community in the nest. This may have consequences on the hatchability of host eggs, even when hosts reject the parasitic egg, typically within six days after parasitism. The present study revealed the bacterial community of cuckoo eggshells and those of the great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus), one of the main hosts of cuckoos. We compared host eggs from non-parasitized clutches, as well as host and cuckoo eggs from parasitized clutches. As incubation may change bacterial assemblages on eggshells, we compared these egg types in two stages: the egg-laying stage, when incubation has not been started, and the mid-incubation stage (ca. on days 5-7 in incubation), where heat from the incubating female dries eggshells. Our results obtained by the 16S rRNA gene sequencing technique showed that fresh host and cuckoo eggs had partially different bacterial communities, but they became more similar during incubation in parasitized nests. Cluster analysis revealed that fresh cuckoo eggs and incubated host eggs in unparasitized nests (where no cuckoo effect could have happened) were the most dissimilar from the other groups of eggs. Cuckoo eggs did not reduce the hatchability of great reed warbler eggs. Our results on the cuckoo-great reed warbler relationship supported the idea that brood parasites may change bacterial microbiota in the host nest. Further studies should reveal how bacterial communities of cuckoo eggshells may vary by host-specific races (gentes) of cuckoos.
Project description:When mimicry imposes costs on models, selection may drive the model's phenotype to evolve away from its mimic. For example, brood parasitism often drives hosts to diversify in egg appearance among females within a species, making mimetic parasitic eggs easier to detect. However, when a single parasite species exploits multiple host species, parasitism could also drive host egg evolution away from other co-occurring hosts, to escape susceptibility to their respective mimics. This hypothesis predicts that sympatric hosts of the same parasite should partition egg phenotypic space (defined by egg colour, luminance and pattern) among species to avoid one another. We show that eggs of warbler species parasitized by the cuckoo finch Anomalospiza imberbis in Zambia partition phenotypic space much more distinctly than do eggs of sympatric but unparasitized warblers. Correspondingly, cuckoo finch host-races better match their own specialist host than other local host species. In the weaver family, parasitized by the diederik cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius, by contrast, parasitized species were more closely related and overlapped extensively in phenotypic space; correspondingly, cuckoos did not match their own host better than others. These results suggest that coevolutionary arms races between hosts and parasites may be shaped by the wider community context in which they unfold.
Project description:Hosts of brood-parasitic birds must distinguish their own eggs from parasitic mimics, or pay the cost of mistakenly raising a foreign chick. Egg discrimination is easier when different host females of the same species each lay visually distinctive eggs (egg 'signatures'), which helps to foil mimicry by parasites. Here, we ask whether brood parasitism is associated with lower levels of correlation between different egg traits in hosts, making individual host signatures more distinctive and informative. We used entropy as an index of the potential information content encoded by nine aspects of colour, pattern and luminance of eggs of different species in two African bird families (Cisticolidae parasitized by cuckoo finches Anomalospiza imberbis, and Ploceidae by diederik cuckoos Chrysococcyx caprius). Parasitized species showed consistently higher entropy in egg traits than did related, unparasitized species. Decomposing entropy into two variation components revealed that this was mainly driven by parasitized species having lower levels of correlation between different egg traits, rather than higher overall levels of variation in each individual egg trait. This suggests that irrespective of the constraints that might operate on individual egg traits, hosts can further improve their defensive 'signatures' by arranging suites of egg traits into unpredictable combinations.
Project description:Interactions between avian hosts and brood parasites can provide a model for how animals adapt to a changing world. Reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) hosts employ costly defenses to combat parasitism by common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). During the past three decades cuckoos have declined markedly across England, reducing parasitism at our study site (Wicken Fen) from 24% of reed warbler nests in 1985 to 1% in 2012. Here we show with experiments that host mobbing and egg rejection defenses have tracked this decline in local parasitism risk: the proportion of reed warbler pairs mobbing adult cuckoos (assessed by responses to cuckoo mounts and models) has declined from 90% to 38%, and the proportion rejecting nonmimetic cuckoo eggs (assessed by responses to model eggs) has declined from 61% to 11%. This is despite no change in response to other nest enemies or mimetic model eggs. Individual variation in both defenses is predicted by parasitism risk during the host's egg-laying period. Furthermore, the response of our study population to temporal variation in parasitism risk can also explain spatial variation in egg rejection behavior in other populations across Europe. We suggest that spatial and temporal variation in parasitism risk has led to the evolution of plasticity in reed warbler defenses.
Project description:Individuals often vary defences in response to local predation or parasitism risk. But how should they assess threat levels when it pays their enemies to hide? For common cuckoo hosts, assessing parasitism risk is challenging: cuckoo eggs are mimetic and adult cuckoos are secretive and resemble hawks. Here, we show that egg rejection by reed warblers depends on combining personal and social information of local risk. We presented model cuckoos or controls at a pair's own nest (personal information of an intruder) and/or on a neighbouring territory, to which they were attracted by broadcasts of alarm calls (social information). Rejection of an experimental egg was stimulated only when hosts were alerted by both social and personal information of cuckoos. However, pairs that rejected eggs were not more likely to mob a cuckoo. Therefore, while hosts can assess risk from the sight of a cuckoo, a cuckoo cannot gauge if her egg will be accepted from host mobbing. Our results reveal how hosts respond rapidly to local variation in parasitism, and why it pays cuckoos to be secretive, both to avoid alerting their targets and to limit the spread of social information in the local host neighbourhood.
Project description:Although egg color polymorphism has evolved as an effective defensive adaptation to brood parasitism, spatial variations in egg color polymorphism remain poorly characterized. Here, we investigated egg polymorphism in 647 host species (68 families and 231 genera) parasitized by 41 species of Old Word cuckoos (1 family and 11 genera) across Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia. The diversity of parasitic cuckoos differs among continents, reflecting the continent-specific intensities of parasitic selection pressure on hosts. Therefore, host egg polymorphism is expected to evolve more frequently on continents with higher cuckoo diversity. We identified egg polymorphism in 24.1% of all host species and 47.6% of all host families. The common cuckoo <i>Cuculus canorus</i> utilized 184 hosts (28.4% of all host species). Hosts of the common cuckoo and of <i>Chrysococcyx</i> species were more likely to have polymorphic eggs than hosts parasitized by other cuckoos. Both the number of host species and the host families targeted by the cuckoo species were positively correlated with the frequency of host egg polymorphism. Most host species and most hosts exhibiting egg color polymorphism were located in Asia and Africa. Host egg polymorphism was observed less frequently in Australia and Europe. Our results also suggested that egg polymorphism tends to occur more frequently in hosts that are utilized by several cuckoo species or by generalist cuckoo species. We suggest that selection pressure on hosts from a given continent increases proportionally to the number of cuckoo species, and that this selection pressure may, in turn, favor the evolution of host egg polymorphism.
Project description:Cuckoo eggs famously mimic those of their foster parents to evade rejection from discriminating hosts. Here we test whether parasites benefit by repeatedly parasitizing the same host nest. This should make accurate rejection decisions harder, regardless of the mechanism that hosts use to identify foreign eggs. Here we find strong support for this prediction in the African tawny-flanked prinia (Prinia subflava), the most common host of the cuckoo finch (Anomalospiza imberbis). We show experimentally that hosts reject eggs that differ from an internal template, but crucially, as the proportion of foreign eggs increases, hosts are less likely to reject them and require greater differences in appearance to do so. Repeated parasitism by the same cuckoo finch female is common in host nests and likely to be an adaptation to increase the probability of host acceptance. Thus, repeated parasitism interacts with egg mimicry to exploit cognitive and sensory limitations in host defences.