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Cuckoos Evolve To Look Like the Species They Exploit

A blue and black bird brings an insect to a larger, blue-flecked cuckoo chick.
A male superb fairy-wren brings food to a Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo fledgling.Only cuckoos that most resemble the host’s own chicks have any chance of escaping detection. Over many generations the cuckoo chicks have evolved to mimic the host chicks. Credit: Mark Lethlean
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Two decades of cuckoo research have helped scientists to explain how battles between species can cause new species to arise.

The theory of coevolution says that when closely interacting species drive evolutionary changes in each other this can lead to speciation - the evolution of new species. But until now, real-world evidence for this has been scarce.

Now a team of researchers has found evidence that coevolution is linked to speciation by studying the evolutionary arms race between cuckoos and the host birds they exploit.

Bronze-cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of small songbirds. Soon after the cuckoo chick hatches, it pushes the host’s eggs out of the nest. The host not only loses all its own eggs, but spends several weeks rearing the cuckoo, which takes up valuable time when it could be breeding itself.

Each species of bronze-cuckoo closely matches the appearance of their host’s chicks, fooling the host parents into accepting the cuckoo.

The study shows how these interactions can cause new species to arise when a cuckoo species exploits several different hosts. If chicks of each host species have a distinct appearance, and hosts reject odd-looking nestlings, then the cuckoo species diverges into separate genetic lineages, each mimicking the chicks of its favoured host. These new lineages are the first sign of new species emerging.

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The study is published today in the journal Science.

“This exciting new finding could potentially apply to any pairs of species that are in battle with each other. Just as we’ve seen with the cuckoo, the coevolutionary arms race could cause new species to emerge - and increase biodiversity on our planet,” said Professor Kilner in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, a co-author of the report.

The striking differences between the chicks of different bronze-cuckoo lineages correspond to subtle differences in the plumage and calls of the adults, which help males and females that specialise on the same host to recognise and pair with each other.

“Cuckoos are very costly to their hosts, so hosts have evolved the ability to recognise and eject cuckoo chicks from their nests,’’ said Professor Naomi Langmore at the Australian National University, Canberra, lead author of the study.

She added: “Only the cuckoos that most resemble the host’s own chicks have any chance of escaping detection, so over many generations the cuckoo chicks have evolved to mimic the host chicks.”

The study revealed that coevolution is most likely to drive speciation when the cuckoos are very costly to their hosts, leading to a ‘coevolutionary arms race’ between host defences and cuckoo counter-adaptations.

A broad scale analysis across all cuckoo species found that those lineages that are most costly to their hosts have higher speciation rates than less costly cuckoo species and their non-parasitic relatives.

“This finding is significant in evolutionary biology, showing that coevolution between interacting species increases biodiversity by driving speciation,” said Dr Clare Holleley at the Australian National Wildlife Collection within CSIRO, Canberra, senior author of the report.

The study was made possible by the team’s breakthrough in extracting DNA from eggshells in historical collections, and sequencing it for genetic studies.

The researchers were then able to combine two decades of behavioural fieldwork with DNA analysis of specimens of eggs and birds held in museums and collections.

Reference: Langmore NE, Grealy A, Noh HJ, et al. Coevolution with hosts underpins speciation in brood-parasitic cuckoos. Science. 2024;384(6699):1030-1036. doi: 10.1126/science.adj3210

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