New paper on visual complexity & mimicry

Jul 13, 2022

Prinia and cuckoo finch egg

Our paper “Visual complexity of egg patterns predicts egg rejection according to Weber’s Law” has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This research was led by Tanmay Dixit, and carried out together with Andrei Apostol, Kuan-Chi Chen, Tony Fulford, Chris Town and Claire Spottiswoode, in a collaboration between biologists and computer scientists. We used machine learning to compute a biologically-relevant measure of egg pattern complexity, and combined this with field experiments in Zambia to investigate how complexity evolves in an arms race between host egg signatures (by tawny-flanked prinias) and parasitic egg forgeries (by cuckoo finches).

Specifically, we quantified the complexity of egg patterns of tawny-flanked prinias (hosts of cuckoo finches) using a machine learning algorithm that optimised the complexity measure such that complexity differences between eggs best predicted egg rejection, according to field data. This means that complexity was quantified in a biologically-relevant manner, and such an algorithm could be used to quantify complexity in other systems.

We also showed that complexity predicts rejection according to Weber’s Law (c.f. our earlier paper on Weber’s Law and how to test it,; also see the news post at Finally we showed that cuckoo finch eggs have simpler patterns than prinia eggs (see image, with a prinia egg on the left and cuckoo finch egg on the right), suggesting that high complexity in egg patterns has evolved to make forgery of these ‘signatures’ difficult.



Jess Lund awarded an R. C. Lewontin Grant from the Society for the Study of Evolution

The Society for the Study of Evolution has awarded Jess Lund an R. C. Lewontin Graduate Research Excellence Grant, which will enable her to expand her investigations into the fascinating lives of honeyguides. This grant is awarded to students early in their PhD programmes to assist them in enhancing the scope of their research. Thank you to the SSE for their generous support of our work!

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New paper on eggshell surface properties

Stephanie McClelland’s paper entitled “Eggshell composition and surface properties of avian brood-parasitic species compared with non-parasitic species” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. This study measured structural properties of the eggshells of brood parasites and their hosts around the world. The study found that…

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