The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: a call for integration.
ABSTRACT: Obligate brood-parasitic cheats have fascinated natural historians since ancient times. Passing on the costs of parental care to others occurs widely in birds, insects and fish, and often exerts selection pressure on hosts that in turn evolve defences. Brood parasites have therefore provided an illuminating system for researching coevolution. Nevertheless, much remains unknown about how ecology and evolutionary history constrain or facilitate brood parasitism, or the mechanisms that shape or respond to selection. In this special issue, we bring together examples from across the animal kingdom to illustrate the diverse ways in which recent research is addressing these gaps. This special issue also considers how research on brood parasitism may benefit from, and in turn inform, related fields such as social evolution and immunity. Here, we argue that progress in our understanding of coevolution would benefit from the increased integration of ideas across taxonomic boundaries and across Tinbergen's Four Questions: mechanism, ontogeny, function and phylogeny of brood parasitism. We also encourage renewed vigour in uncovering the natural history of the majority of the world's brood parasites that remain little-known. Indeed, it seems very likely that some of nature's brood parasites remain entirely unknown, because otherwise we are left with a puzzle: if parental care is so costly, why is brood parasitism not more common? This article is part of the theme issue 'The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern'.
Project description:Cuckoos (family Cuculidae) show the highest diversity of breeding strategies within one bird family (parental care, facultative and obligate brood parasites). We used independent contrasts from two phylogenies to examine how this variation was related to 13 ecological and life-history variables. The ancestral state was probably tropical, resident, forest cuckoos with parental care. The evolution of brood parasitism was correlated with a shift to more open habitats, a change in diet, increases in species breeding-range size and migration, and a decrease in egg size. Once parasitism had evolved, more elaborate parasitic strategies (more harmful to host fitness) were correlated with decreased egg size, a change in diet, increased breeding-range size and migration, a shortened breeding season and a decrease in local abundance. Establishing the most probable evolutionary pathways, using the method of Pagel, shows that changes in ecological variables (such as migration, range size and diet type) preceded the evolution of brood parasitism, which is likely to be a later adaptation to reduce the cost of reproduction. By contrast, brood parasitism evolved before changes in egg size occurred, indicating that egg size is an adaptive trait in host--parasite coevolution. Our results suggest that the evolution of cuckoo brood parasitism reflects selection from both ecological pressures and host defences.
Project description:Interspecific brood parasitism occurs in several independent lineages of birds and social insects, putatively evolving from intraspecific brood parasitism. The cuckoo catfish, Synodontis multipunctatus, the only known obligatory non-avian brood parasite, exploits mouthbrooding cichlid fishes in Lake Tanganyika, despite the absence of parental care in its evolutionary lineage (family Mochokidae). Cuckoo catfish participate in host spawning events, with their eggs subsequently collected and brooded by parental cichlids, though they can later be selectively rejected by the host. One scenario for the origin of brood parasitism in cuckoo catfish is through predation of cichlid eggs during spawning, eventually resulting in a spatial and temporal match in oviposition by host and parasite. Here we demonstrate experimentally that, uniquely among all known brood parasites, cuckoo catfish have the capacity to re-infect their hosts at a late developmental stage following egg rejection. We show that cuckoo catfish offspring can survive outside the host buccal cavity and re-infect parental hosts at a later incubation phase by exploiting the strong parental instinct of hosts to collect stray offspring. This finding implies an alternative evolutionary origin for cuckoo catfish brood parasitism, with the parental response of host cichlids facilitating its evolution. This article is part of the theme issue 'The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern'.
Project description:Interspecific brood parasitism is common in many animal systems. Brood parasites enter the nests of other species and divert host resources for producing their own offspring, which can lead to strong antagonistic parasite-host coevolution. Here, we look at commonalities among social insect species that are victims of brood parasites, and use phylogenetic data and information on geographical range size to predict which species are most probably to fall victims to brood parasites in the future. In our analyses, we focus on three eusocial hymenopteran groups and their brood parasites: (i) bumblebees, (ii) Myrmica ants, and (iii) vespine and polistine wasps. In these groups, some, but not all, species are parasitized by obligate workerless inquilines that only produce reproductive-caste descendants. We find phylogenetic signals for geographical range size and the presence of parasites in bumblebees, but not in ants and wasps. Phylogenetic logistic regressions indicate that the probability of being attacked by one or more brood parasite species increases with the size of the geographical range in bumblebees, but the effect is statistically only marginally significant in ants. However, non-phylogenetic logistic regressions suggest that bumblebee species with the largest geographical range sizes may have a lower likelihood of harbouring social parasites than do hosts with medium-sized ranges. Our results provide new insights into the ecology and evolution of host-social parasite systems, and indicate that host phylogeny and geographical range size can be used to predict threats posed by social parasites, as well to design efficient conservation measures for both hosts and their parasites. This article is part of the theme issue 'The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern'.
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:Parental care is critical for offspring survival in many species. However, parental behaviors have been lost in roughly 1% of avian species known as the obligate brood parasites. To shed light on molecular and neurobiological mechanisms mediating brood parasitic behavior, we compared brain gene expression patterns between two brood parasitic species and one closely related non-parasitic Icterid (blackbird) species. Our analyses focused on gene expression changes specifically in the preoptic area (POA), a brain region known to play a critical role in parental behavior across vertebrates. Using comparative transcriptomic approaches, we identified gene expression patterns associated with brood parasitism. We evaluated three non-mutually exclusive alternatives for the evolution of brood parasitism: (1) retention of juvenile-like (neotenic) gene expression, (2) reduced expression of maternal care-related genes in the POA, and/or (3) increased expression of genes inhibiting maternal care. We find evidence for neotenic expression patterns in both species of parasitic cowbirds as compared to maternal, non-parasites. In addition, we observed differential expression in a number of genes with previously established roles in mediating maternal care. Together, these results provide the first insight into transcriptomic and genetic mechanisms underlying the loss of maternal behavior in avian brood parasites.
Project description:Coevolution is often invoked as an engine of biological diversity. Avian brood parasites and their hosts provide one of the best-known examples of coevolution. Brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other species, selecting for host defences and reciprocal counteradaptations in parasites. In theory, this arms race should promote increased rates of speciation and phenotypic evolution. Here, we use recently developed methods to test whether the three largest avian brood parasitic lineages show changes in rates of phenotypic diversity and speciation relative to non-parasitic lineages. Our results challenge the accepted paradigm, and show that there is little consistent evidence that lineages of brood parasites have higher speciation or extinction rates than non-parasitic species. However, we provide the first evidence that the evolution of brood parasitic behaviour may affect rates of evolution in morphological traits associated with parasitism. Specifically, egg size and the colour and pattern of plumage have evolved up to nine times faster in parasitic than in non-parasitic cuckoos. Moreover, cuckoo clades of parasitic species that are sympatric (and share similar host genera) exhibit higher rates of phenotypic evolution. This supports the idea that competition for hosts may be linked to the high phenotypic diversity found in parasitic cuckoos.
Project description:Classic evolutionary theory predicts that monogamy should be intimately linked with parental care. It has long been assumed, therefore, that avian brood parasites-which lay their eggs in the nests of 'host' species and provide little, if any, parental care-should be overwhelmingly promiscuous. However, recent studies have revealed that the social mating systems of brood parasites are surprisingly diverse, encompassing lek polygyny, monogamy, polygamy and promiscuity. What ecological or phylogenetic factors explain this variation, and why are some brood parasites apparently monogamous? Here we review the social and genetic mating systems of all 75 brood parasitic species for which data are available and evaluate several hypotheses that may help explain these patterns. We find that social monogamy is widespread, often co-occurring with territoriality and cooperative behaviour by the mated pair. Comparative studies, though preliminary, suggest that in some species, monogamy is associated with low host density and polygamy with higher host density. Interestingly, molecular data show that genetic and social mating systems can be entirely decoupled: genetic monogamy can occur in parasitic species that lack behavioural pair-bonds, possibly as a by-product of territoriality; conversely, social monogamy has been reported in parasites that are genetically polygamous. This synthesis suggests that social and genetic monogamy may result from very different selective pressures, and that male-female cooperative behaviours, population density and territoriality may all interact to favour the evolution of monogamous mating in brood parasites. Given that detailed descriptive data of social, and especially genetic, mating systems are still lacking for the majority of brood parasitic species, definitive tests of these hypotheses await future work. This article is part of the theme issue 'The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern'.
Project description:The range of hosts exploited by a parasite is determined by several factors, including host availability, infectivity and exploitability. Each of these can be the target of natural selection on both host and parasite, which will determine the local outcome of interactions, and potentially lead to coevolution. However, geographical variation in host use and specificity has rarely been investigated. Maculinea (= Phengaris) butterflies are brood parasites of Myrmica ants that are patchily distributed across the Palæarctic and have been studied extensively in Europe. Here, we review the published records of ant host use by the European Maculinea species, as well as providing new host ant records for more than 100 sites across Europe. This comprehensive survey demonstrates that while all but one of the Myrmica species found on Maculinea sites have been recorded as hosts, the most common is often disproportionately highly exploited. Host sharing and host switching are both relatively common, but there is evidence of specialization at many sites, which varies among Maculinea species. We show that most Maculinea display the features expected for coevolution to occur in a geographic mosaic, which has probably allowed these rare butterflies to persist in Europe. This article is part of the theme issue 'The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern'.
Project description:The spatial distribution of hosts can be a determining factor in the reproductive success of parasites. Highly aggregated hosts may offer more opportunities for reproduction but can have better defences than isolated hosts. Here we connect macro- and micro-evolutionary processes to understand the link between host density and parasitism, using avian brood parasites as a model system. We analyse data across more than 200 host species using phylogenetic comparative analyses and quantify parasitism rate and host reproductive success in relation to spatial distribution using field data collected on one host species over 6 years. Our comparative analysis reveals that hosts occurring at intermediate densities are more likely to be parasitized than colonial or widely dispersed hosts. Correspondingly, our intraspecific field data show that individuals living at moderate densities experience higher parasitism rates than individuals at either low or high densities. Moreover, we show for the first time that the effect of host density on host reproductive success varies according to the intensity of parasitism; hosts have greater reproductive success when living at high densities if parasitism rates are high, but fare better at low densities when parasitism rates are low. We provide the first evidence of the trade-off between host density and parasitism at both macro- and micro-evolutionary scales in brood parasites. This article is part of the theme issue 'The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern'.
Project description:Insect societies play a crucial role in the functioning of most ecosystems and have fascinated both scientists and the lay public for centuries. Despite the long history of study, we are still far from understanding how insect societies have evolved and how social cohesion in their colonies is maintained. Here we suggest inquiline social parasites of insect societies as an under-exploited experimental tool for understanding sociality. We draw on examples from obligate inquiline (permanent) social parasites in wasps, ants and bees to illustrate how these parasites may allow us to better understand societies and learn more about the evolution and functioning of insect societies. We highlight three main features of these social parasite-host systems-namely, close phylogenetic relationships, strong selective pressures arising from coevolution and multiple independent origins-that make inquiline social parasites particularly suited for this aim; we propose a conceptual comparative framework that considers trait losses, gains and modifications in social parasite-host systems. We give examples of how this framework can reveal the more elusive secrets of sociality by focusing on two cornerstones of sociality: communication and reproductive division of labour. Together with social parasites in other taxonomic groups, such as cuckoos in birds, social parasitism has a great potential to reveal the mechanisms and evolution of complex social groups. This article is part of the theme issue 'The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern'.