True recognition of nestlings by hosts selects for mimetic cuckoo chicks.
ABSTRACT: 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 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:Extra-pair copulation can increase genetic diversity and offspring fitness. However, it may also increase intra-nest variability in avian hosts of brood parasites, which can decrease the discrimination ability of host parents towards the parasite. In New Caledonia, the Fan-tailed Gerygone (Gerygone flavolateralis), which is parasitized by the Shining Bronze-cuckoo (Chalcites lucidus), has two nestling morphs, dark and bright, that can occur in monomorphic and polymorphic broods. Gerygone parents recognize and eject parasite nestlings from their nest, but the presence of polymorphic broods may increase the chances of recognition errors. Using 17 microsatellite markers, we investigated the mating system of the Fan-tailed Gerygone to understand the mechanisms underlying nestling polymorphism. We hypothesised that extra-pair copulations would lead to a higher proportion of polymorphic broods caused by higher genetic variability, thus creating a trade-off between genetic benefits and host defence reliability. Extra-pair paternity occurred in 6 of 36 broods, which resulted in 6 of 69 offspring sired by extra-pair males. Broods with and without mixed paternity were comparably often parasitized. Extra-pair paternity did not influence the proportions of bright, dark and polymorphic broods. Compared to bright siblings in polymorphic broods, dark nestlings tended to have lower heterozygosity, particularly in loci associated with skin coloration. The results also suggested that there is no obstacle for genetic exchange between individuals from forest and savannah, possibly due to dispersal of offspring. We conclude that the Fan-tailed Gerygone is a socially monogamous species with a low rate of extra-pair paternity compared to closely related species. Extra-pair paternity increased offspring genetic variability without measurable associated costs by brood parasitism. The results highlight the importance of studying host mating systems to assess the trade-offs between host defence and offspring fitness in co-evolutionary arms races.
Project description:Mimicry of a harmless model (aggressive mimicry) is used by egg, chick and fledgling brood parasites that resemble the host's own eggs, chicks and fledglings. However, aggressive mimicry may also evolve in adult brood parasites, to avoid attack from hosts and/or manipulate their perception of parasitism risk. We tested the hypothesis that female cuckoo finches (Anomalospiza imberbis) are aggressive mimics of female Euplectes weavers, such as the harmless, abundant and sympatric southern red bishop (Euplectes orix). We show that female cuckoo finch plumage colour and pattern more closely resembled those of Euplectes weavers (putative models) than Vidua finches (closest relatives); that their tawny-flanked prinia (Prinia subflava) hosts were equally aggressive towards female cuckoo finches and southern red bishops, and more aggressive to both than to their male counterparts; and that prinias were equally likely to reject an egg after seeing a female cuckoo finch or bishop, and more likely to do so than after seeing a male bishop near their nest. This is, to our knowledge, the first quantitative evidence for aggressive mimicry in an adult bird, and suggests that host-parasite coevolution can select for aggressive mimicry by avian brood parasites, and counter-defences by hosts, at all stages of the reproductive cycle.
Project description: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: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:Brood parasitism is a breeding strategy adopted by many species of cuckoos across the world. This breeding strategy influences the evolution of life histories of brood parasite species.In this study, we tested whether the degree on diet specialization is related to the breeding strategy in cuckoo species, by comparing brood parasite and nonparasite species. We measured the gradient of diet specialization of cuckoos, by calculating the Gini coefficient, an index of inequality, on the multiple traits describing the diet of species. The Gini coefficient is a measure of statistical dispersion on a scale between 0 and 1, reflecting a gradient from low to high specialization, respectively. First, we tested the strength of the phylogenetic signal of diet specialization index among cuckoo species worldwide. Then, we ran phylogenetic generalized least square (PGLS) models to compare diet specialization, distribution range, and body mass of parasitic and nonparasitic cuckoo species, considering the phylogenetic signal of data.After adjusting for the phylogenetic signal of the data and considering both, species distribution range and species body mass, brood parasitic cuckoos were characterized by higher diet specialization than nonbrood parasitic species. Brood parasitic species were also characterized by a larger breeding distribution range than nonparasitic species.The findings of this study provide an additional understanding of the cuckoos' ecology, relating diet and breeding strategies, information that could be important in conservation ecology.
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:Natural selection penalizes individuals that provide costly parental care to non-relatives. However, feedings to brood-parasitic fledglings by individuals other than their foster parents, although anecdotic, have been commonly observed, also in the great spotted cuckoo (Clamator glandarius)--magpie (Pica pica) system, but this behaviour has never been studied in depth. In a first experiment, we here show that great spotted cuckoo fledglings that were translocated to a distant territory managed to survive. This implies that obtaining food from foreign magpies is a frequent and efficient strategy used by great spotted cuckoo fledglings. A second experiment, in which we presented a stuffed-cuckoo fledgling in magpie territories, showed that adult magpies caring for magpie fledglings responded aggressively in most of the trials and never tried to feed the stuffed cuckoo, whereas magpies that were caring for cuckoo fledglings reacted rarely with aggressive behavior and were sometimes disposed to feed the stuffed cuckoo. In a third experiment we observed feedings to post-fledgling cuckoos by marked adult magpies belonging to four different possibilities with respect to breeding status (i.e. composition of the brood: only cuckoos, only magpies, mixed, or failed breeding attempt). All non-parental feeding events to cuckoos were provided by magpies that were caring only for cuckoo fledglings. These results strongly support the conclusion that cuckoo fledglings that abandon their foster parents get fed by other adult magpies that are currently caring for other cuckoo fledglings. These findings are crucial to understand the co-evolutionary arms race between brood parasites and their hosts because they show that the presence of the host's own nestlings for comparison is likely a key clue to favour the evolution of fledgling discrimination and provide new insights on several relevant points such as learning mechanisms and multiparasitism.
Project description:Sexual dimorphism is ubiquitous in animals and can result from selection pressure on one or both sexes. Sexual selection has become the predominant explanation for the evolution of sexual dimorphism, with strong selection on size-related mating success in males being the most common situation. The cuckoos (family Cuculidae) provide an exceptional case in which both sexes of many species are freed from the burden of parental care but where coevolution between parasitic cuckoos and their hosts also results in intense selection. Here, we show that size and plumage differences between the sexes in parasitic cuckoos are more likely the result of coevolution than sexual selection. While both sexes changed in size as brood parasitism evolved, we find no evidence for selection on males to become larger. Rather, our analysis indicates stronger selection on parasitic females to become smaller, resulting in a shift from dimorphism with larger females in cuckoos with parental care to dimorphism with larger males in parasitic species. In addition, the evolution of brood parasitism was associated with more cryptic plumage in both sexes, but especially in females, a result that contrasts with the strong plumage dimorphism seen in some other parasitic birds. Examination of the three independent origins of brood parasitism suggests that different parasitic cuckoo lineages followed divergent evolutionary pathways to successful brood parasitism. These results argue for the powerful role of parasite-host coevolution in shaping cuckoo life histories in general and sexual dimorphism in particular.
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.