The perceptual and chemical basis of egg discrimination in communally nesting Greater Anis (Crotophaga major)

Hauber, Mark; Dainson, Miri; Baldassarre, Daniel; Hossain, Marouf; Holford, Mande; Riehl, Christina

10 June 2018

The eggshells of communally breeding Greater Anis (Crotophaga major) consist of a blue-green pigmented calcite matrix overlaid by a chalky white layer of vaterite, both of which are polymorphs of calcium carbonate. The white vaterite layer is intact in freshly laid eggs and may function in protecting the eggs from mechanical damage, but it also abrades during incubation to reveal the blue calcite shell underneath. Previous research has shown that this color change serves a visual signaling function: nesting Greater Anis can discriminate between eggs that are freshly laid and those that have already been incubated, which allows them to reject asynchronous eggs laid by extra-group parasites. Here we use avian visual modeling and pigment extraction to assess the perceptual and chemical bases of such egg recognition. We found that there was no overlap between the avian perceptual space occupied by ani eggshells with and without vaterite, and that vaterite lacked both of the pigments found in the eggshell’s calcite matrix, bililverdin and protoporphyrin. The visual contrast between the unpigmented vaterite and the blue-pigmented calcite appears to pre-date the evolution of the signaling function, since the related Guira Cuckoo (Guira guira), also a communal breeder, lays similarly structured and pigmented eggs but does not use the visual contrast as a signal to detect parasitism.