DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2023.1125 ISSN: 0962-8452

When perfection isn't enough: host egg signatures are an effective defence against high-fidelity African cuckoo mimicry

Jess Lund, Tanmay Dixit, Mairenn C. Attwood, Silky Hamama, Collins Moya, Martin Stevens, Gabriel A. Jamie, Claire N. Spottiswoode
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Medicine

Most mimicry systems involve imperfect mimicry, whereas perfect and high-fidelity mimicry are rare. When the fidelity of mimicry is high, mimics might be expected to have the upper hand against their antagonists. However, in coevolving systems, diversification of model phenotypes may provide an evolutionary escape, because mimics cannot simultaneously match all model individuals in the population. Here we investigate high-fidelity mimicry in a highly specialized, Afrotropical brood parasite–host system: the African cuckoo and fork-tailed drongo. Specifically, we test whether host egg polymorphisms are an effective defence against such mimicry. We show, using a combination of image analysis, field experiments and simulations, that: (1) egg colour and pattern mimicry of fork-tailed drongo eggs by African cuckoos is near-perfect on average; (2) drongos show fine-tuned rejection of foreign eggs, exploiting unpredictable pattern differences between parasitic eggs and their own; and (3) the high degree of interclutch variation (polymorphic egg ‘signatures’) exhibited by drongos gives them the upper hand in the arms race, with 93.7% of cuckoo eggs predicted to be rejected, despite cuckoos mimicking the full range of drongo egg phenotypes. These results demonstrate that model diversification is a highly effective defence against mimics, even when mimicry is highly accurate.

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