What’s the News: The reproductive life of a cuckoo is both easy—it lays its eggs in others birds’ nests, and lets them feed the young—and difficult: cuckoos are involved in an “evolutionary arms race” with other birds, finds a new study. Even as cuckoos improve their counterfeiting skills—producing eggs that look more like others birds’—the host birds get better and better at identifying the forged eggs.
How the Heck:
- Knowing that birds have four types of color-sensitive cone cells in their eyes, allowing them to see ultraviolet wavelengths, researchers used a spectroscope to measure the amount of light reflected from hundreds of cuckoo and host-bird eggs. They then fed this data into models to produce images showing how birds see the different types of eggs.
- They discovered that while cuckoo and redstart eggs have a high degree of color overlap, cuckoo eggs targeted for dunnock nests did not.
- Here’s the kicker: Redstarts and dunnocks don’t spot forgeries equally. Redstarts are more discerning of foreign eggs and readily kick out cuckoo forgeries, while the dumb dunnocks accept even the most mismatched eggs. So these findings suggest that cuckoos targeting redstarts evolved the ability to create better forgeries because the redstart has such a good eye. With dunnocks, that evolutionary force wasn’t at play because the birds are so accepting of forgeries; why bother?
What’s the Context:
- What sets this research apart from previous work is how the researchers used UV-sensing equipment to mimic bird vision. (Past research relied merely on human inspection.)
- Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a lot of cuckoo news, from how some host birds have an evolutionary advantage to take care of cuckoo eggs to how grown cuckoos actually mimic hawks to fool small birds.
- Carl Zimmer in The Loom touches on how humans are like cuckoos.
The Future Holds: Scientists still aren’t sure why some hosts, like the dunnock, are so accepting of cuckoo eggs. Some scientists argue that this is because the risk in mistakenly rejecting a real egg outweighs the cost of raising a cuckoo egg. The jury’s still out.
Reference: “AVIAN VISION AND THE EVOLUTION OF EGG COLOR MIMICRY IN THE COMMON CUCKOO” Mary Caswell Stoddard and Martin Stevens. DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01262.x