Multiple parasitism reduces egg rejection in the host (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) of a mimetic avian brood parasite (Cuculus canorus)

Thomas J. Manna, Csaba Moskát, Lainga Tong, Miklós Bán, Zachary Aidala, Jason Low, Márk E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A host that has been targeted by an avian brood parasite can recover most of its potential fitness loss by ejecting the foreign egg(s) from its nest. The propensity for some hosts to engage in egg rejection behavior has put selective pressure on their parasites to evolve mimetic eggshells resembling the host's own shell colors and maculation. In turn, hosts have counterevolved increasingly more sophisticated detection methods such as narrowing visual egg acceptance thresholds or using social cues to recognize parasitism. However, multiple cognitive mechanisms acting simultaneously could theoretically interfere with one another and ultimately decrease egg rejection accuracy, especially if these heuristics yield differing targets for rejection. By painting hosts own eggs, we studied a host species of the common cuckoo Cuculus canorus, the great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus, and tested its responses to the presence of "foreign" eggs of varying quantity, colors, and uniformity. Using reflectance spectra of egg background coloration and avian perceptual modeling, we then estimated the sensory thresholds triggering egg rejection by this host for each treatment. As previously reported, rejection rates were positively related to the perceptual distance between own and foreign eggs in the nests in all treatments. However, rejection thresholds were more permissive (error prone) both with greater proportions of foreign eggs per clutch and/or when the suite of foreign eggs was perceptually more variable within the nest. These results suggest that parasites, through multiple parasitism, can partially overcome the evolution of hosts' recognition of mimetic parasite eggs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)351-358
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Comparative Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2019


  • Acceptance thresholds
  • Coevolution
  • Host-parasite interactions
  • Sensory modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


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