Are cuckoos maximizing egg mimicry by selecting host individuals with better matching egg phenotypes?
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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OriginalversjonPLoS ONE 2012, 7(2) 10.1371/journal.pone.0031704
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.