, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 189-196

The American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) as a paradigm for adult automimicry

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Summary

The body of theory concerning life-history strategies predicts that the duration of high-mortality stages should be minimized by natural selection. This is especially applicable to the avian pre-flight stage, during which growth rates typically are rapid. Using the American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) as a paradigm, I propose a developmental strategy by which young animals can lower their mortality rates by an accelerated (and deceptive) acquisition of adult or adult-like characters. The benefit accrues when predators misidentify the vulnerable young as adults and fail to attack them because adults are much less vulnerable. This strategy, termed adult automimicry, is most likely to occur in precocial species living in open habitats.

American Avocets are large, precocial, open-country shorebirds that first fly when about 4–5 weeks old. They develop a juvenal, plumage in their third week that resembles adult breeding plumage in pattern and color, even though plumage details are different. At this time chicks begin using adult foraging techniques and tend to move away rather than hide from potential predators. A few weeks later they acquire a first winter plumage that resembles adult winter plumage. Thus, avocet chicks appear unusually adult-like after their second week. This should make it difficult for distant predators to distinguish flightless chicks from volant adults.