Egg rejection is an effective and widespread antiparasitic defense to eliminate foreign eggs from the nests of hosts of brood parasitic birds. Several lines of observational and critical experimental evidence support a role for learning by hosts in the recognition of parasitic versus own eggs; specifically, individual hosts that have had prior or current experience with brood parasitism are more likely to reject foreign eggs. Here we confirm experimentally the role of prior experience in altering subsequent egg-rejection decisions in the American robin Turdus migratorius, a free-living host species of an obligate brood parasite, the brown-headed cowbird Molothrus ater. We then model the coevolutionary trajectory of both the extent of mimicry of host eggs by parasitic eggs and the host’s egg rejection thresholds in response to an increasing role of learning in egg recognition. Critically, with more learning, we see the evolution of both narrower (more discriminating) rejection thresholds in hosts and greater egg mimicry in parasites. Increasing host clutch size (number of eggs/nest) and increasing parasite load (parasitism rate) also have narrowing effects on the egg-rejection threshold. Together, these results suggest that learning from prior experience with egg rejection may play an important role in the coevolution of egg-mimetic lineages of brood parasites and the refined egg rejection defenses of hosts.
The persistence of imperfect mimicry in nature presents a challenge to mimicry theory. Some hypotheses for the existence of imperfect mimicry make differing predictions depending on how mimetic fidelity is measured. Here, we measure mimetic fidelity in a brood parasite–host system using both trait-based and response-based measures of mimetic fidelity. Cuckoo finches
- Award ID(s):
- NSF-PAR ID:
- Publisher / Repository:
- The Royal Society
- Date Published:
- Journal Name:
- Biology Letters
- Medium: X
- Sponsoring Org:
- National Science Foundation
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Brown‐headed cowbirds (
Molothrus ater) are generalist obligate brood parasites, laying in the nest of nearly 300 avian species, and successfully parasitizing well over 100 host species. Cowbird eggs are generally considered non‐mimetic, although some have suggested that cowbird eggs resemble several of their host species’ eggs. To date, no investigation has examined the level of avian‐perceived similarity between cowbird and diverse host eggs in the contexts of light characteristics at the nest and the visual system of the relevant viewer. Because the cowbird exploits a wide range of species that lay in a variety of nest types, hosts view these eggs under an array of light conditions which could facilitate or hinder egg discrimination. When considering the visual system of the relevant viewers and the light conditions at their nest, we found that the coloration of cowbird eggs was more similar to host than non‐host species’ eggs. Host responses (whether they accept or reject cowbird eggs) were not statistically different when hosts perceived a large chromatic difference between their own eggs and the cowbird's eggs. Instead, we found that host responses were predicted by the degree to which nesting light conditions facilitated color similarity between host and cowbird eggs, such that hosts typically nesting under light conditions where this color discrimination task was more challenging were more likely to reject cowbird eggs. This suggests that the nesting light environment may have selected for increased coevolved egg recognition abilities in a suite of cowbird host species, even in the absence of parasitic egg color mimicry.
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