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Naturwissenschaften. 2007 Jun;94(6):441-7. Epub 2007 Jan 25.

Host intra-clutch variation, cuckoo egg matching and egg rejection by great reed warblers.

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Department of Botany and Zoology, University of Stellenbosch, Private Bag X1, Matieland, 7602 South Africa.


Prevailing theory predicts that lower levels of intra-clutch variation in host eggs facilitate the detection of brood parasitism. We assessed egg matching using both human vision and UV-VIS spectrophotometry and then followed the nest fate of great reed warblers naturally parasitised by European cuckoos. Rejection was predicted by the following three variables: matching between cuckoo and host eggs on the main chromatic variable defined by principal components analysis of the egg spectra (which has a strong loading in the UV); the number of host eggs in the nest; and human estimates of intra-clutch variation. The first variable is not correlated to human estimates of matching, which do not predict rejection. In line with another recent study, rejection rates were predicted by higher levels of intra-clutch variation in the host eggs, suggesting that higher rather than lower levels of intra-clutch variation can facilitate the discrimination of cuckoo eggs by hosts. We suggest that the importance of intra-clutch variation is context dependent, with intra-clutch variation being important when there is good matching between the host and the cuckoo eggs. Our results also suggest that both spectrometric and human visual assessments of egg matching and intra-clutch variation are prudent: the former provide the best method of estimating reflectance variation, whereas the latter include some assessment of patterns of maculation.

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