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Experimental support for the use of egg uniformity in parasite egg discrimination by cuckoo hosts

Moskát, Csaba, Avilés, Jesús M., Bán, Miklós, Hargitai, Rita, Zölei, Anikó
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2008 v.62 no.12 pp. 1885-1890
Acrocephalus, Cuculus canorus, eggs, hosts, nests, paints, parasites, parasitism, phenotype
Common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) parasitism drastically reduces the reproductive success of their hosts and selects for host discrimination of cuckoo eggs. In a second stage of anti-parasite adaptation, once cuckoos can lay eggs that mimic those of their hosts, a high uniformity of host egg appearance within a clutch may favour cuckoo egg discrimination. Comparative evidence provides indirect support for this hypothesis although experimental support is currently lacking. Here, we studied the effect of experimentally decreased uniformity of host egg appearance on cuckoo egg discrimination by great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) hosts in a population in which long-term cuckoo parasitism has led to high levels of cuckoo-host egg mimesis. We manipulated host clutch uniformity by adding extra spots to fresh host eggs just after they were laid. Rejection of non-mimetic experimental eggs added to these nests was compared with those in control nests in which uniformity was not altered. Previously, by over-painting real spots in a control group of nests, we showed a negligible effect of our paints on hosts' perception of their eggs. We show that for the great reed warbler, non-mimetic experimental eggs were relatively more tolerated in experimental nests, i.e. with lower uniformity (40%) than in control nests (5%). This is the first experimental study, to our knowledge, which demonstrates a reduced discrimination of foreign eggs as a consequence of an increase of egg phenotypes variation perception in a cuckoo host.