Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 593–617 | Cite as

Parents, predators, parasites, and the evolution of eggshell colour in open nesting birds

  • Daniel Hanley
  • Phillip Cassey
  • Stéphanie M. Doucet
Original Paper


The colourful surface of birds’ eggshells varies dramatically between species, but the selective pressures driving this variation remain poorly understood. We used a large comparative dataset to test several hypotheses proposed to explain the evolution of eggshell colouration. We tested the hypothesis that predation pressure might select for cryptic eggshells by examining the relationship between predation rate and egg colouration. We found that predation rates were positively related to eggshell brightness. The blackmail hypothesis suggests that females lay colourful eggshells to coerce males into providing additional care during incubation to keep colourful eggs covered. According to this hypothesis, conspicuous eggs should be found in situations with high risk of visual detection from predators or brood parasites. In support of this hypothesis, proportional blue-green chroma was positively related to parasitism risk, and eggs with higher proportional blue-green chroma or higher ultraviolet chroma received higher combined parental nest attendance during the incubation period. The sexual signalling hypothesis states that blue-green colour indicates female quality; however, we did not find that blue-green eggshell colour was greater in species where males participate in any form of parental care, and relative male provisioning was unrelated to blue-green eggshell chroma. We found some support for the hypothesis that brood parasitism may select for high inter-clutch variation in eggshell colour to facilitate egg recognition. In our dataset, parasitism risk was negatively related to inter-clutch repeatability of blue-green chroma. Our study highlights the diversity of selection pressures acting on the evolution of eggshell colour in birds and provides suggestions for novel areas of future key research direction.


Blackmail hypothesis Egg colour Egg recognition Evolution Parasitism Predation Sexual signalling hypothesis 



We greatly appreciate the assistance provided by the curatorial staff and assistants at natural history collections: J. Hinshaw and R. Payne (University of Michigan Museum of Zoology), P. Sweet, P. Capainolo, and J. Cracraft (American Museum of Natural History), and D. Willard and J. Bates (the Field Museum). We are also grateful for the helpful comments made by J. Endler, and two anonymous reviewers, and the assistance provided by T. M. Blackburn, J. G. Ewen, D. G. D. Russell, and R. L. Boulton (the National Museum at Tring). We thank S. S. Baker, P.-P. Bitton, J. Cuthbert, K. G. Drouillard, D. C. Lahti, D. J. Mennill, T. E. Pitcher, and K.-A. A. Ward for comments on the manuscript. We are grateful for funding from the American Museum of Natural History, the Chapman Fund, and the Field Museum (to DH) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (to SMD). PC is an ARC Future Fellow.

Supplementary material

10682_2012_9619_MOESM1_ESM.docx (4.1 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 4211 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel Hanley
    • 1
    • 2
  • Phillip Cassey
    • 3
  • Stéphanie M. Doucet
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada
  2. 2.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of GuelphGuelphCanada
  3. 3.School of Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia

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