Continuous variation rather than specialization in the egg phenotypes of Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) parasitizing two sympatric reed warbler species

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Abstract

The evolution of brood parasitism has long attracted considerable attention among behavioural ecologists, especially in the common cuckoo system. Common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) are obligatory brood parasites, laying eggs in nests of passerines and specializing on specific host species. Specialized races of cuckoos are genetically distinct. Often in a given area, cuckoos encounter multiple hosts showing substantial variation in egg morphology. Exploiting different hosts should lead to egg-phenotype specialization in cuckoos to match egg phenotypes of the hosts. Here we test this assumption using a wild population of two sympatrically occurring host species: the great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) and reed warbler (A. scirpaceus). Using colour spectrophotometry, egg shell dynamometry and egg size measurements, we studied egg morphologies of cuckoos parasitizing these two hosts. In spite of observing clear differences between host egg phenotypes, we found no clear differences in cuckoo egg morphologies. Interestingly, although chromatically cuckoo eggs were more similar to reed warbler eggs, after taking into account achromatic differences, cuckoo eggs seemed to be equally similar to both host species. We hypothesize that such pattern may represent an initial stage of an averaging strategy of cuckoos, that - instead of specializing for specific hosts or exploiting only one host - adapt to multiple hosts.

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Drobniak, S. M., Dyrcz, A., Sudyka, J., & Cichoń, M. (2014). Continuous variation rather than specialization in the egg phenotypes of Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) parasitizing two sympatric reed warbler species. PLoS ONE, 9(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106650

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