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Cryptic eggs are rejected less frequently by a cuckoo host

Abstract

Obligate brood parasitism is associated with huge reproduction costs, forcing hosts to evolve various anti-parasitic strategies against brood parasites, among which egg recognition and rejection is the most effective defense strategy. According to the crypsis hypothesis, non-mimetic yet cryptic eggs in a nest can also deceive their hosts and eventually be accepted. To validate this hypothesis, we conducted field experiments on Oriental reed warblers (Acrocephalus orientalis), a common host for common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). We firstly tested the egg recognition and rejection abilities of Oriental reed warblers, using black and white model eggs in natural nests. Then we designed a comparison test where the cryptic effects of the two groups of experimental eggs were different. We manipulated the nest lining color and added relatively cryptic and bright model eggs to test warblers’ rejection behaviors against cryptic and bright foreign eggs. The results showed that warblers have strong egg recognition and rejection abilities. There is a significant tendency for warblers to prefer to peck and reject relatively distinguishable foreign eggs, which supports the crypsis hypothesis. These findings indicate that even in the host-parasite system of open nests, parasitic eggs that are cryptic enough are prevented from being discovered and rejected by the host, and thus obtain the possibility of successful parasitism.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Wenfeng Wang from Zhalong National Nature Reserve for the help and cooperation.

Funding

This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 31960105 to LW, 31772453 and 31970427 to WL). LW was funded by the Joint Fund of the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Karst Science Research Center of Guizhou province (No. U1812401).

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Contributions

W.L. designed the study; L.W., J.M. and Y.Z. carried out field experiments; L.W. performed statistical analyses and wrote the draft manuscript; W.L. improved the manuscript. All authors approved the final submission.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wei Liang.

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We declare that we have no competing interests.

Ethical standards

The experiments comply with the current laws of China, where they were performed. Fieldwork was carried out with permission (no. ZL-GZNU-2019-06) from Zhalong National Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, China. Experimental procedures were in agreement with the Animal Research Ethics Committee of Hainan Provincial Education Centre for Ecology and Environment, Hainan Normal University (no. HNECEE-2012-003).

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Wang, L., He, G., Zhang, Y. et al. Cryptic eggs are rejected less frequently by a cuckoo host. Anim Cogn 24, 1171–1177 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01507-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01507-2

Keywords

  • Common cuckoo
  • Egg crypsis
  • Egg removal
  • Egg recognition
  • Oriental reed warbler