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Proc Biol Sci. 2007 Feb 7;274(1608):373-81.

Experimental evidence for chick discrimination without recognition in a brood parasite host.

Author information

  • Department of Zoology, Palacky University, tr Svobody 26, 771 46 Olomouc, Czech Republic. tomas.grim@upol.cz

Abstract

Recognition is considered a critical basis for discriminatory behaviours in animals. Theoretically, recognition and discrimination of parasitic chicks are not predicted to evolve in hosts of brood parasitic birds that evict nest-mates. Yet, an earlier study showed that host reed warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) of an evicting parasite, the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), can avoid the costs of prolonged care for unrelated young by deserting the cuckoo chick before it fledges. Desertion was not based on specific recognition of the parasite because hosts accept any chick cross-fostered into their nests. Thus, the mechanism of this adaptive host response remains enigmatic. Here, I show experimentally that the cue triggering this 'discrimination without recognition' behaviour is the duration of parental care. Neither the intensity of brood care nor the presence of a single-chick in the nest could explain desertions. Hosts responded similarly to foreign chicks, whether heterospecific or experimental conspecifics. The proposed mechanism of discrimination strikingly differs from those found in other parasite-host systems because hosts do not need an internal recognition template of the parasite's appearance to effectively discriminate. Thus, host defences against parasitic chicks may be based upon mechanisms qualitatively different from those operating against parasitic eggs. I also demonstrate that this discriminatory mechanism is non-costly in terms of recognition errors. Comparative data strongly suggest that parasites cannot counter-evolve any adaptation to mitigate effects of this host defence. These findings have crucial implications for the process and end-result of host-parasite arms races and our understanding of the cognitive basis of discriminatory mechanisms in general.

PMID:
17164201
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC1702381
Free PMC Article

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