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Proc Biol Sci. 2010 Oct 22;277(1697):3079-85. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0592. Epub 2010 May 19.

Sexual imprinting misguides species recognition in a facultative interspecific brood parasite.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA.


Sexual reproduction relies on the recognition of conspecifics for breeding. Most experiments in birds have implicated a critical role for early social learning in directing subsequent courtship behaviours and mating decisions. This classical view of avian sexual imprinting is challenged, however, by studies of megapodes and obligate brood parasites, species in which reliable recognition is achieved despite the lack of early experience with conspecifics. By rearing males with either conspecific or heterospecific brood mates, we experimentally tested the effect of early social experience on the association preferences and courtship behaviours of two sympatrically breeding ducks. We predicted that redheads (Aythya americana), which are facultative interspecific brood parasites, would show a diminished effect of early social environment on subsequent courtship preferences when compared with their host and congener, the canvasback (Aythya valisineria). Contrary to expectations, cross-fostered males of both species courted heterospecific females and preferred them in spatial association tests, whereas control males courted and associated with conspecific females. These results imply that ontogenetic constraints on species recognition may be a general impediment to the initial evolution of interspecific brood parasitism in birds. Under more natural conditions, a variety of mechanisms may mitigate or counteract the effects of early imprinting for redheads reared in canvasback broods.

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