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Evolution. 2002 Jan;56(1):199-205.

Obligate brood parasites as selective agents for evolution of egg appearance in passerine birds.

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Department of Zoology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim.


Many passerine host species have counteracted the parasite egg mimicry in their coevolutionary arms race with the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) by evolving increased interclutch and reduced intraclutch variation in egg appearance. Such variations make it easier for hosts to recognize a foreign egg, reduce the possibility of making recognition errors, and reduce the ability of the cuckoo to mimic the eggs of a particular host. Here, we investigate if such clutch characteristics have evolved among North American passerines. We predict that due to the absence of brood parasites with egg mimicry on this continent, these passerines should (1) not show any relationship between rejection rates and intra- or interclutch variation, and (2) intraclutch variation should be lower and interclutch variation higher in European hosts exposed to cuckoo parasitism as compared to North American hosts parasitized by cowbirds. Here we present data that show support for most of these and other predictions, as well as when controlling statistically for effects of common descent. However, the effect of continent on intraclutch variation was less than predicted and we discuss a possible reason for this. All things considered, the results demonstrate that parasitism by a specialist brood parasite with egg mimicry is a powerful selective force regarding the evolution of egg characteristics in passerine birds.

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