Arms race in bird kingdom

20 April 2010 | Story by Newsroom

New colours: Dr Claire Spottiswoode presented a talk as part the 50th anniversary seminar series of the FitzPatrick Institute.

Ornithologist Dr Claire Spottiswoode presented a talk on the evolution of the colour of birds' eggs as part the 50th anniversary seminar series of UCT's Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology on 7 April.

Spottiswoode, a research associate of the FitzPatrick Institute and a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge in UK, presented her findings in a talk titled Arms Race Through Colour Space: coevolution and the Cuckoo Finch.

Brood parasitic birds, such as cuckoos, are cheats that lay their eggs in other species' nests, exploiting them to raise their young. The host species have evolved defences against this, such as rejecting foreign eggs from their nests. Parasitic birds have evolved counter-adaptations, such as egg mimicry.

"The two parties can thus become locked in a co-evolutionary struggle," said Spottiswoode, "each to stay one step ahead of the other, as parasites evolve ever better manipulation of their hosts, and hosts respond with ever more refined defences to evade parasitism."

Spottiswoode explained that this co-evolution is an "arms race", which "has led to remarkably rapid changes in egg appearance within the time scale of a human lifetime".

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