Brood-parasitic birds lay eggs that mimic those of other species, to trick hosts into incubating their egg and raising their chick. Hosts often fight back by evolving egg colours and patterns that look different from those of their parasites, making an impostor easier to spot. In this study, we tested whether natural selection also drives hosts to evolve eggs that look different from those of other hosts, to avoid being susceptible to their neighbour’s specialist parasites when several host species live side by side. Using data from Major John Colebrook-Robjent‘s wonderful egg collection, we find evidence for this in the hosts of African brood-parasitic birds, which have evolved astonishingly diverse eggs. Read more in the full paper is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, by Eleanor Caves (former MPhil student), Martin Stevens and Claire Spottiswoode; see also a news article about this research in The Economist.
New paper on imperfect egg mimicry
Our paper “Combined measures of mimetic fidelity explain imperfect mimicry in a brood parasite-host system” has just been published in the journal Biology Letters. This study was led by Tanmay Dixit, and carried out together with Gary Choi, Salem al-Mosleh, Jess Lund, Jolyon Troscianko, Collins Moya, L Mahadevan, and Claire Spottiswoode, as part of a collaboration between our group and Prof. Mahadevan and his lab at Harvard University. Together we combined mathematical tools and field experiments in Zambia to quantify a key difference – “squiggle” markings – between the eggs of hosts (tawny-flanked prinias) and parasites (cuckoo finches). We showed that suboptimal behaviour on the part of prinias allows cuckoo finches to get by with an imperfect copy of prinia eggs.