To eject or to abandon? Life history traits of hosts and parasites interact to influence the fitness payoffs of alternative anti-parasite strategies

M. R. Servedio, M. E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Hosts either tolerate avian brood parasitism or reject it by ejecting parasitic eggs, as seen in most rejecter hosts of common cuckoos, Cuculus canorus, or by abandoning parasitized clutches, as seen in most rejecter hosts of brown-headed cowbirds, Molothrus ater. What explains consistent variation between alternative rejection behaviours of hosts within the same species and across species when exposed to different types of parasites? Life history theory predicts that when parasites decrease the fitness of host offspring, but not the future reproductive success of host adults, optimal clutch size should decrease. Consistent with this prediction, evolutionarily old cowbird hosts, but not cuckoo hosts, have lower clutch sizes than related rarely- or newly parasitized species. We constructed a mathematical model to calculate the fitness payoffs of egg ejector vs. nest abandoner hosts to determine if various aspects of host life history traits and brood parasites' virulence on adult and young host fitness differentially influence the payoffs of alternative host defences. These calculations showed that in general egg ejection was a superior anti-parasite strategy to nest abandonment. Yet, increasing parasitism rates and increasing fitness values of hosts' eggs in both currently parasitized and future replacement nests led to switch points in fitness payoffs in favour of nest abandonment. Nonetheless, nest abandonment became selectively more favourable only at lower clutch sizes and only when hosts faced parasitism by a cowbird- rather than a cuckoo-type brood parasite. We suggest that, in addition to evolutionary lag and gape-size limitation, our estimated fitness differences based on life history trait variation provide new insights for the consistent differences observed in the anti-parasite rejection strategies between many cuckoo- and cowbird-hosts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1585-1594
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Coevolution
  • Game theory
  • Lifetime reproductive success
  • Nest desertion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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