How do cooperatively breeding groups resist invasion by parasitic "cheaters," which dump their eggs in the communal nest but provide no parental care [1,2]? Here I show that Greater Anis (Crotophaga major), Neotropical cuckoos that nest in social groups containing several breeding females , use a simple rule based on the timing of laying to recognize and reject eggs laid by extragroup parasites. I experimentally confirmed that Greater Anis cannot recognize parasitic eggs based on the appearance of host egg phenotypes or on the number of eggs in the clutch. However, they can discriminate between freshly laid eggs and those that have already been incubated, and they accordingly eject asynchronous eggs. This mechanism is reliable in naturally parasitized nests, because group members typically lay their eggs in tight synchrony, whereas the majority of parasitic eggs are laid several days later. Rejection of asynchronous eggs therefore provides a rare empirical example of a complex, group-level behavior that arises through relatively simple "rules of thumb" without requiring advanced cognitive mechanisms such as learning, counting, or individual recognition.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)