Nest Camouflage in Nightjars & Other Birds

Introduction

Fiery-necked Nightjar

A Fiery-necked Nightjar brooding two chicks among leaf litter in Zambia.

Nesting nightjars (and other ground-nesting birds such as plovers and coursers) are a particularly neat system for studying the evolution of camouflage in the wild: they don’t build any kind of nest structure but just lay their eggs directly on the natural background, which means they depend completely on the appearance of their eggs or their own bodies for concealment. It’s also important that nests by definition are in a fixed location – so you know the bird has chosen that spot rather than happening to have landed there after being disturbed. At our study site in Zambia we have several species of nightjar, plover and courser breed out in the open in the baking heat of the late dry season. They need to make sure that their eggs (and themselves) are protected not only from predators but also dangerously high temperatures out in the sun at midday.

Jolyon and Jared

Jolyon Troscianko and Jared Wilson-Aggarwal in the field in Zambia, photographing an incubating Fiery-necked Nightjar using a UV-sensitive camera.

We’ve been studying nightjars, coursers and plovers in the field in Zambia since 2011. These birds are currently the focus of Dr Nick Horrocks‘s work on thermal ecology. They were previously the focus of a BBSRC-funded research project in collaboration with the Sensory Ecology Group Exeter University, co-led by Exeter’s Dr Martin Stevens and carried out by Dr Jolyon Troscianko and Jared Wilson-Aggarwal. Please read more about our work on the ProjectNightjar website, help us with our research by posing as a predator in an online computer game and exerting some natural selection on ever-evolving populations of virtual eggs, have a look at the photo galleries below of real nightjars and coursers in the field, and join nearly half a million others in watching this very short video that our funders, the BBSRC, made using our film footage from Zambia:

Publications

  • Stevens, M., Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J.K. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2017 Improvement of individual camouflage through background choice in ground-nesting birds. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1: 1325-1333. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Troscianko, J. Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Griffiths, D., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. (2017) Relative advantages of dichromatic and trichromatic color vision in camouflage breaking. Behavioral Ecology 28: 556-564. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. (2016) Nest covering in plovers: how modifying the visual environment influences egg camouflage. Ecology and Evolution doi: 10.1002/ece3.2494 Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Troscianko, J., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2016) Escape distance in ground-nesting birds differs with level of individual camouflage. American Naturalist 188: 231–239. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2016) Camouflage directly predicts the survival probability of ground-nesting birds. Scientific Reports 6: 19966. Read on journal website [Open Access]

Nightjar Photo Gallery

Coursers Photo Gallery

News

Evolutionary Biology Crash Course

Tanmay Dixit was a member of a team organising and lecturing in the inaugural Evolutionary Biology Crash Course. This course, aimed at undergraduate or early-postgraduate students, teaches evolutionary principles to students who have had limited opportunities to be exposed to evolutionary ideas. The course is funded by the Equal Opportunities Initiative Fund of the European Society of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB). Tanmay presented lectures on behavioural ecology and evolution, focussing on kin selection, coevolution, and parasitism. Over 700 students, with the vast majority from the global South, attended the course, which was a resounding success!

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New paper on visual complexity & mimicry

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).

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Fieldwork and teaching at APLORI, Nigeria

Dr Gabriel Jamie is continuing his fieldwork on the evolution of polymorphisms in cisticolas and prinias in Nigeria, where he is also a teaching fellow at the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI). The image shows the 2022 APLORI MSc class during the Global Birding Big Day on 14 May. The team recorded 135 species while walking around the nature reserve surrounding the institute.

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New paper on the genetics of cuckoo finch egg mimicry

Our paper “Genetic architecture facilitates then constrains adaptation in a host-parasite coevolutionary arms race” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In it, we address the long-standing puzzle of how exquisite mimicry of the eggs of several different host species can evolve within a single species of brood-parasitic bird. We show that in cuckoo finches in Zambia, egg mimicry of different host egg phenotypes is maternally inherited, which allows mothers to transmit host-specific adaptations to their daughters irrespective of which host species the father was raised by. This study was a team effort from colleagues at the University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town (Claire Spottiswoode, Wenfei Tong, Gabriel Jamie), at Boston University (Katherine Stryjewski, Jeff DaCosta, Evan Kuras and Michael Sorenson) and in the Choma community in Zambia (Ailsa Green, Silky Hamama, Ian Taylor and Collins Moya).

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