Defence strategy antagonisms and rare enemy effects: Cuckoo chicks finally rejected




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Defence strategy antagonisms and rare enemy effects: Cuckoo chicks finally rejected



Tomáš Grim1, Robert Planqué2, Nicholas F. Britton3, and Nigel R. Franks4
1Department of Zoology, Palacký University, tř. Svobody 26, CZ-771 46 Olomouc, Czech Republic

2Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica, Amsterdam, Netherlands

3Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Bath, Bath, UK

4School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, UK

Abstract


Scientists have long been puzzled by the apparent lack of nestling discrimination among hosts of the common cuckoo and other brood parasites. Two exciting new papers, combined with recent theoretical work, shed new light on this old paradox. Cuckoo chicks may be too rare to exert a selective pressure, and the hosts themselves may cause this rarity.

Introduction


Why are the hosts of common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) so good at discriminating against the parasites’ eggs and yet so accepting of their enemies’ nestlings? This paradox has been debated for decades1–6. While often excellent at discriminating cuckoo eggs from their own, until very recently there were no reports of a host rejecting a cuckoo nestling. A recent paper7 is the first report of such behaviour. Reed warblers Acrocephalus scirpaceus, a well-studied host of cuckoos, have been observed to starve cuckoo chicks to death by abandoning the nest when the period has passed that a reed warbler brood usually needs to fledge. A second paper8 reports that the superb fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus may also desert its nest when it is occupied by a single parasitic chick of shining bronze-cuckoo Chrysococcyx lucidus or Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo C. basalis. These results indicate that an ability to discriminate nestlings may be innate, pointing towards new explanations for the apparent rarity of chick discrimination behaviour in cuckoo hosts.

Absence of nestling discrimination: adaptive or maladaptive?


Understanding the lack of chick rejection behaviour has been hampered by a lack of experimental data: one cannot assess the costs and benefits of a trait that does not exist. Nevertheless, several hypotheses have been put forward. The Evolutionary Lag Hypothesis9 states that nestling discrimination would be adaptive but not enough time has elapsed for it to evolve. The Evolutionary Equilibrium Hypothesis10,11 on the other hand views this trait as maladaptive (a balance between the costs of acceptance and the costs of rejection and recognition errors), and sees the current situation as a stasis.

Parallel to this, there are opposing assumptions about the possible mechanisms of recognition of alien entities in the nest. The discrimination cue may either be learned in early development, or it may be innate. If chick rejection is learned by imprinting the problem has been solved by Lotem4, by showing that if hosts make any error in their first attempt to discriminate between their own young and the parasite's, the costs are always greater than the benefits. In the terminology of the two hypotheses the cuckoo-host system is then in evolutionary equilibrium. Recently, Lawes and Marthews12 have extended this model to the case of non-evicting parasites and have shown theoretically that parasite chick discrimination may be favoured but only under special circumstances (host nestling survival alongside the parasite is rare, rates of parasitism are high and the average clutch size is large); these are met infrequently. However, to explain from a hereditary standpoint why chick rejection is absent has remained a mystery.



Constraints on chick discrimination


According to the prevailing view the crucial factor preventing the evolution of chick discrimination has been the absence of the host’s own chicks for comparison1,3–6. The idea that discrimination is easier if there is a model for comparison is supported by the finding that host nestling discrimination has until now only been observed in non-evicting parasites13–15. In the three host-parasite systems in question, hosts can compare their own nestlings with alien ones3.

However, to discriminate effectively, birds do not always need comparative material: hosts of parasitic birds are able to reject the entire parasite clutch (exchanged by experimenters for an original one) even without any of their own eggs present11,16–18. More importantly, estrildids (Estrildidae) can discriminate against a whole brood of another species with no conspecific young for comparison19.

Further, there are non-comparative cognitive systems that could well work in the context of parasitic chick discrimination – discrimination can be innate (mate recognition20) or based on the individual’s own phenotype (self-referent phenotype matching21). A future host can also learn when it was a chick from the begging sounds and an appearance of its own nestmates.

New papers


Two recent papers indicate that simultaneous comparison is in fact not always necessary. In these cases the strategy used is different from the ones already suggested. Australian superb fairy-wrens desert all nests with a non-mimetic shining bronze-cuckoo chick present and 40% of nests with mimetic Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo chick present8. Fairy-wrens sometimes desert their own lone chicks but the desertion rate is significantly higher in the presence of the parasitic progeny. Thus, cuckoo chick desertion cannot be explained fully as a by-product of a life-history strategy to avoid inefficient parental investment in a single chick brood. Further experiments showed that the cue for recognition is not the appearance of the chick but the structure of begging calls. The host response was clearly not based on imprinting – females that accepted a parasitic chick did not abandon a lone host chick in later breeding attempts.

European reed warblers adopted similar responses to parasitic common cuckoo chicks – desertion after a very long nestling period7. Several lines of evidence indicated that warblers refused to feed cuckoo chicks that require a higher intensity of parental care than an average host brood at fledging, i.e. feeding rates to the parasite were outside the normal range of parental care at an unparasitised nest.



Defence strategy antagonism and rare enemy effects


Why was the rejection of parasitic chicks observed in these particular hosts? A recent mathematical model22 suggests a different solution that does not invoke the “simultaneous comparison” constraint. This new model may put the first observations of chick rejection in cuckoo-host systems in perspective. The model describes the interplay between several types of hosts, (all-accepters, egg-rejecters, chick-rejecters and all-rejecters), and the parasitic cuckoo. (Note that an egg-rejecter, for example, does not reject eggs unconditionally, but does so if it is sufficiently sure that the egg it intends to reject is not its own.) The model includes both ecological and evolutionary aspects of the problem (cf. ref. 23). It incorporates costs incurred by recognition errors but neglects any physiological costs associated with the behavioural capability of rejection. Fitness functions that are dependent on parasitism rate are assigned to each defence strategy. The parasite population is assumed to be limited by host availability, and therefore the parasitism rate in turn depends on the host population and on the defence strategy or strategies that hosts adopt.

The first prediction of the model is that, in almost all circumstances, an equilibrium will be attained where there is only one type of defensive host. As this equilibrium is the result of the competition between different defensive host types, we term this a Defence Strategy Antagonism. Here it acts at the population level. It predicts, for example, the absence of a mixed population with some egg-rejecters and some chick-rejecters under most conditions.

The second prediction is that at this equilibrium the fitness of the defensive hosts is the same as the fitness of the non-defensive hosts, i.e. those that unconditionally accept parasitic eggs and chicks. In other words, the defensive hosts themselves drive the parasite population down so low that it is only marginally worth continuing such a defence.

Which of the three defensive strategies will the hosts adopt? The model's third prediction is that it is most likely, by far, to be egg rejection. Chick rejection is inherently more costly than egg rejection, because of the delay incurred in putting it into effect and the damage that a cuckoo chick will cause before it is discovered. It will therefore only be favoured over egg rejection if it is much less prone to error, e.g. if mimicry of host eggs by the parasite has led to high failure rates in the egg-rejection process. All-rejection is in most circumstances even less likely to prevail, essentially because of the Rare Enemy Effect2. Due to the egg-rejection mechanisms in place, the number of parasitic chicks encountered by a host is reduced. It is important to realise that the mechanisms do not have to be efficient, and the reduction in encounters does not have to be drastic; a small effect is sufficient to tip the balance. In short, this first line of defence may suppress the emergence of the second, which may be thought of as Defence Strategy Antagonism at the individual level. An important exception to this conclusion is that all-rejection might be expected if the chick-rejection strategy is nearly cost-free, i.e. scarcely ever results in the erroneous rejection of a host chick.



How does the model fit the real world?


Almost all hosts of the common cuckoo show a relatively high rejection rate of parasitic eggs24 which could – together with extremely low parasitism rates at the host species level (<5% 6) – explain the absence of nestling discrimination in these hosts. Note that even without parasitic egg rejection by the host the effective parasitism rate at the chick stage is lower than at the egg stage because some parasitic eggs are ejected by another cuckoo (4%), and some are infertile, laid too late in the breeding cycle of the host, or do not hatch for some other reason (2%) (25, Øien et al. unpublished data).

On the other hand, hosts of the brown-headed cowbird Molothrus ater are either close to 100% egg-rejecters (selection for nestling rejection is then nil) or they accept almost all parasite eggs. This is probably a result of a recent colonisation by the parasite9 so we cannot expect to observe nestling rejection here either. In all, both systems with evicting and non-evicting parasites are in line with the third prediction of the model that egg rejection is often the only defence strategy present within the host population.

Rejection of the eggs of parasites renders few opportunities that favour nestling recognition in comparison to egg recognition. Thus, the rare enemy hypothesis becomes the “rarer enemy hypothesis” which predicts that nestling discrimination (and consequently parasitic nestling mimicry) should predominantly evolve in hosts that display mild egg rejection, for instance by being tricked into accepting parasite eggs because of the nearly perfect match between parasitic and host eggs. Such a nearly perfect match could result from mimicry and phylogenetic13 or physical constraints (a host cannot discriminate eggs in poor light conditions of dark domed nests especially if alien and host eggs are of similar size and shape14).

Several host-parasite systems that show 100% egg acceptance also discriminate against parasitic nestlings and parasite mimicry can also be found. Examples are estrildids parasitised by Vidua finches13,19, bay-winged cowbird Molothrus badius parasitised by screaming cowbird M. rufoaxillaris14 and superb fairy-wrens parasitised by Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo8. Circumstantial evidence for joint occurrence of egg-acceptance and nestling rejection/mimicry comes from other two systems: house crows Corvus splendens parasitised by the Asian koel Eudynamys scolopacea26, and shining bronze-cuckoo parasitising the grey warbler Gerygone igata27. Both hosts accept all parasitic eggs. It has been argued that the chicks of Asian koel are probably mimetic3,6, and indirect evidence suggests also nestling mimicry in the shining bronze-cuckoo27.

Hence, selection induced by parasitic nestlings is not relaxed by parasitic egg ejection in any of these systems. This is consistent with the rarer enemy hypothesis. It should be noted, that rufous-bellied thrushes Turdus rufiventris may also be able to discriminate against parasitic shiny cowbird Molothrus bonariensis chicks15 but the accepter/rejecter status of this host is unfortunately unclear; this host is a very weak rejecter at best28.

Some authors5,27 considered discrimination against foreign nestlings in a species that accept strange eggs to be puzzling. However, as egg rejection keeps the effective parasitism rate at the nestling stage at levels that might not allow positive selection of nestling discrimination, there are good reasons to expect exactly this pattern.

The model fits the two new papers reasonably well. The fairy-wrens adopt a chick rejection strategy that is both low cost and virtually error-free (fairy-wrens sometimes desert lone own chicks but one chick broods are extremely rare in this species). This fits the rarer enemy hypothesis as we have seen. Reed warblers have higher costs and probabilities of re-nesting are lower due to a shorter breeding period. Although there is substantial egg rejection (~40%) among the warblers25, the relatively high parasitism rates in this particular population suggest it is not very effective. However, the warbler adopts a strategy of delayed chick rejection which could mean it is virtually certain that it has a cuckoo in the nest. Thus, it very rarely has to pay the costs of a recognition error – reed warblers were reported to never desert one-nestling broods6,29. The advantage of error-free defence bears the cost of long care for the parasite before desertion. These factors could perhaps explain the lower frequency of chick desertion in warblers compared to fairy-wrens (16 vs 40–100%).

Future directions


Following three decades in which brood parasitism research focused almost exclusively upon the egg stage the last five years have brought a set of exciting papers which finally pay attention to the nestling stage7,8,14,15,19. In future research we suggest that it would be best not to focus exclusively on parasite chick mimicry because this may be distracting – chick discrimination by hosts may not necessarily lead to the evolution of nestling mimicry in parasites7,14. A more fruitful approach would be to focus on (1) host responses (in species parasitised with near perfectly matching eggs) to cross-fostered non-parasitic nestlings of other species and (2) effects of brood reduction in both naive and experienced host individuals. The reason for the latter is that the costs of desertion may decrease with the age and experience of the host (rejection of parasitic nestlings by superb fairy-wrens is partly explained by brood reduction8).

This synthesis of current experimental and theoretical progress gives new insight into the interaction between defence strategies and the working of the rare enemy effect. It may also explain paradoxes in other parasitic systems. For example, when there is more than one level of parasitism, we can now understand why some species fail to recognise their own friends. Ant colonies Myrmica schencki are sometimes parasitised by butterfly larvae Maculinea rebeli30. In turn the butterfly larvae may be parasitised by Ichneumon eumerus wasps. A chemical cocktail that provokes in-fighting among the ant workers31 allows the wasp to get access to and lay its egg in the caterpillar. Although the wasps help relieve the ants from their parasites (if the parasitized caterpillar consumes less of the ants’ resources), the ants clearly do not recognize the wasps as their allies – or why would the wasp have to cause internecine warfare to get into their nest? We suggest that the beneficial wasp is simply too rare to be recognized as a friend. The wasp is rare because the butterfly is rare: the extreme specialisation within this system drives a “rare friends effect”.



In both cases, the actual rare enemy or rare friend is made rare by defences against other ‘predators’ in the system. Cuckoo chicks are rare because egg rejection has made them rare; the wasps are rare because the butterflies are. These two parasite-host systems elucidate subtle new mechanisms in which rarity structures the evolution of organisms, and indicate that the evolution of some adaptations could change the ‘rules of the game’ at other stages of coevolution, leading to maladaptiveness of some traits that would otherwise be adaptive for the bearers.

Acknowledgements


During the work on this paper TG was supported by a grant from the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic (206/03/D234). We thank Arnon Lotem for his insightful remarks, and Geir Rudolfson for the photograph.

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