Higher-level pattern features provide additional information to birds when recognizing and rejecting parasitic eggs

Mary Caswell Stoddard, Benedict G. Hogan, Martin Stevens, Claire N. Spottiswoode

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Despite a recent explosion of research on pattern recognition, in both neuroscience and computer vision, we lack a basic understanding of how most animals perceive and respond to patterns in the wild. Avian brood parasites and their hosts provide an ideal study system for investigating the mechanisms of pattern recognition. The cuckoo finch, Anomalospiza imberbis, and its host the tawny-flanked prinia, Prinia subflava, lay highly polymorphic eggs with a great deal of variation in colour and patterning, with the cuckoo finch capable of close egg mimicry. Behavioural experiments in Zambia have previously shown that prinias use colour and multiple ‘low-level’ (occurring in early stages of visual processing) pattern attributes, derived from spatial frequency analysis, when rejecting foreign eggs. Here, we explore the extent to which host birds might also use ‘higher-level’ pattern attributes, derived from a feature detection algorithm, to make rejection decisions. Using a SIFT-based pattern recognition algorithm, NATUREPATTERNMATCH, we show that hosts are more likely to reject a foreign egg if its higher-level pattern features—which capture information about the shape and orientation of markings—differ from those of the host eggs. A revised statistical model explains about 37% variance in egg rejection behaviour, and differences in colour, low-level and higher-level pattern features all predict rejection, accounting for 42, 44 and 14% of the explained variance, respectively. Thus, higher-level pattern features provide a small but measurable improvement to the original model and may be especially useful when colour and low-level pattern features provide hosts with little information. Understanding the relative importance of low- and higher-level pattern features is a valuable goal for future work on animal coloration, especially in the contexts of mimicry, camouflage and individual recognition. This article is part of the theme issue ‘The coevolutionary biology of brood parasitism: from mechanism to pattern’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20180197
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1769
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Animal coloration
  • Avian vision
  • Brood parasitism
  • Coevolution
  • Mimicry
  • Pattern recognition


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