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Content archived on 2024-05-29

Cuckoo-host interactions when multiple parasites target a single host: tactics and trade-offs in a co-evolutionary arms race


Interspecific brood parasitism occurs when parents relegate the care of their offspring to unrelated foster parents of another species. As a consequence, foster parents often fail to rear their own offspring. How can such pattern evolve?
Hosts should quickly evolve mechanisms to prevent costly parasitism, yet brood parasitism persists in cuckoos and other birds, fishes, and insects. Theory suggests that parasite-host interactions evolve inane \"arms-race\" - a cycle of adaptation and counter-adaptation. This co-evolution modulates behavioural and morphological adaptations, sometimes over relatively short time scales. Such systems provide an opportunity to study evolutionary processes in action. For simplicity, studies usually focus on co-evolutionary arms races in single pair of interact ants. In contrast, I will examine a complex system that is more representative of natural situations. Here, a single host is parasailed by two species of cuckoo, each of which has a different strategy. The chicks of one cuckoo remove all host eggs, while the chicks of the other are raised alongside those of the host. I will study cuckoo-host co-evolution by investigating parent-offspring communication in hosts, how cuckoos exploit this communication, the costs of parasitism, and the adaptations of hosts to reduce these costs. To do this, I will develop mathematical models that make predictions about optimal behaviour of parasites and host, and compare these predictions with data collected from the field and laboratory. The results of this study will deepen our understanding of evolutionary processes involving multiple interact ants. Such complexity often imposes conflicting evolutionary pressures on organisms. An understanding of these pressures, in turn, is important in predicting the response of biological communities to ecological changes. This project will also facilitate my move from the U.S. to Europe after my Ph.D.

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