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Am Nat. 2008 Mar;171(3):327-38. doi: 10.1086/527493.

Dark nests and conspicuousness in color patterns of nestlings of altricial birds.

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Departamento de Ecología Funcional y Evolutiva, Estación Experimental de Zonas Aridas (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), General Segura 1, E-04001 Almería, Spain.


Nests of altricial birds exhibit variable spectral properties that may affect the efficacy (conspicuousness) of the colored begging traits that a nestling displays to its parents. Here we explored whether selection for efficient perception has favored the evolution of nestling color designs that maximizes nestling detectability in variable light environments. Visual models were used to estimate how parents perceive the coloration of mouths, flanges, heads, and breasts of nestlings within their nest in 21 species of European birds. We show that the largest chromatic and achromatic contrasts against the nest background appeared for nestling mouths and flanges, respectively. Nestlings of open-nesting species showed a larger general achromatic contrast with the nest than did nestlings of hole-nesting species. However, nestlings of hole nesters showed a more evident achromatic contrast between flanges and other traits than did nestlings of open nesters. In addition, species with larger clutch sizes showed larger general achromatic contrasts with the nest. Gaping traits of open-nesting species contrasting with the nest background were better perceived under rich light regimes than under poor ones. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which selection for nestling detectability in dark environments has favored the evolution of particular achromatic components of gape coloration but also nestling traits that enhance signal efficacy by maximizing color contrasts within a nestling.

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