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Nature. 2003 Mar 13;422(6928):157-60.

Escalation of a coevolutionary arms race through host rejection of brood parasitic young.

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School of Botany and Zoology, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia.


Cuckoo nestlings that evict all other young from the nest soon after hatching impose a high reproductive cost on their hosts. In defence, hosts have coevolved strategies to prevent brood parasitism. Puzzlingly, they do not extend beyond the egg stage. Thus, hosts adept at recognizing foreign eggs remain vulnerable to exploitation by cuckoo nestlings. Here we show that the breach of host egg defences by cuckoos creates a new stage in the coevolutionary cycle. We found that defences used during the egg-laying period by host superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) are easily evaded by the Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo (Chrysococcyx basalis), a specialist fairy-wren brood parasite. However, although hosts never deserted their own broods, they later abandoned 40% of nests containing a lone Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo nestling, and 100% of nests with a lone shining bronze-cuckoo nestling (Chrysococcyx lucidus), an occasional fairy-wren brood parasite. Our experiments demonstrate that host discrimination against evictor-cuckoo nestlings is possible, and suggest that it has selected for the evolution of nestling mimicry in bronze-cuckoos.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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