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How to Make a Mimic? Brood Parasitic Striped Cuckoo Eggs Match Host Shell Color but Not Pigment Concentrations

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Hosts of avian brood parasites often use visual cues to reject foreign eggs, and several lineages of brood parasites have evolved mimetic eggshell coloration and patterning to circumvent host recognition. What is the mechanism of parasitic egg color mimicry at the chemical level? Mimetic egg coloration by Common Cuckoos Cuculus canorus is achieved by depositing similar concentrations of colorful pigments into their shells as their hosts. The mechanism of parasitic egg color mimicry at the chemical level in other lineages of brood parasites remains unexplored. Here we report on the chemical basis of egg color mimicry in an evolutionarily independent, and poorly studied, host-parasite system: the Neotropical Striped Cuckoo Tapera naevia and one of its hosts, the Rufous-and-white Wren Thryophilus rufalbus. In most of South America, Striped Cuckoos lay white eggs that are identical to those of local host species. In Central America, however, Striped Cuckoos lay blue eggs that match those of the Rufous-and-white Wren, suggesting that blue egg color in these cuckoo populations is an adaptation to mimic host egg appearance. Here we confirm that Striped Cuckoo eggs are spectrally similar to those of their hosts and consistently contain the same major eggshell pigment, biliverdin. However, wren eggshells lacked protoporphyrin, which was present in the parasitic cuckoo eggshells. Furthermore, biliverdin concentrations were significantly lower in cuckoo eggshells than in host eggshells. Similarity of host-parasite eggshell appearance, therefore, need not always be paralleled by a quantitative chemical match to generate effective visual mimicry in birds.

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Funding was provided by the Human Frontier Science Program and the Harley Jones Van Cleave Professorship at the University of Illinois (to MEH). MH also acknowledges funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award and NSF awards CHE-1247550 and CHE-1347065. We thank the Hunter College Chemistry Department and its mass spectrometry core facility, which is supported by the City University of New York, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health. The Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program provided funding that allowed collection of Yellow-billed Cuckoo eggshells used in this study. This work was conducted under IACUC permits 2002-1228 from Stony Brook University and 2015-0601-2018 from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. For additional samples, we thank the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo.

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Correspondence to Mark E. Hauber.

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Dainson, M., Mark, M., Hossain, M. et al. How to Make a Mimic? Brood Parasitic Striped Cuckoo Eggs Match Host Shell Color but Not Pigment Concentrations. J Chem Ecol 44, 940–946 (2018).

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