Date of Degree

5-2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor(s)

Mark E. Hauber

Subject Categories

Biology | Psychology

Keywords

Behavioral Ecology; Brood Parasitism; Neuroethology; Visual Ecology; Visual Modeling

Abstract

Color signals are highly important features of animal communication systems, particularly among birds, which possess exquisitely complex visual perception systems. Birds possess tetrachromatic vision, and some species are sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths. Because human and avian visual systems dramatically differ (i.e. humans are not sensitive to UV wavelengths), biologically relevant sensory models are necessary to accurately assess the function of avian color signals. In this dissertation, I primarily use brood parasite-host interactions as a model for studying the behavioral function of avian-perceivable visual stimuli. In Chapter 1, I review the importance of employing biologically relevant sensory-perceptual visual models when testing visual ecology hypotheses. Most models of avian visual space require the input of physiological parameters, such as the relative densities of cone photoreceptors. I also review methodologies that can be employed to increase the accuracy of visual models themselves. One such method is DNA sequencing of the short-wavelength sensitive type 1 (SWS1) opsin to assess the degree of UV-light sensitivity. Avian species possess variable sensitivities to UV wavelengths based on the amino acids present at key 'spectral tuning' sites, and DNA sequencing of the SWS1 opsin gene allows for accurate assessment of the photoreceptor opsin's maximal sensitivity. In Chapters 2 and 3, I report predicted sensitivities to UV light signals based on DNA sequencing of the key 'spectral tuning' region of the SWS1 opsin in a number of species spanning four avian lineages, including passerine hosts of obligate brood parasitic North American brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) and Australasian shining-bronze cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus) and long-tailed cuckoo (Eudynamis taitensis). I specifically tested the UV-matching hypothesis, which suggests that seemingly non-mimetic parasitic eggs (based on human vision) may be accepted by hosts due to parasite eggshell mimicry at UV wavelengths. While the UV-matching hypothesis garnered some previous empirical support among African parasite-host systems, I did not find evidence of UV-matching as it relates to egg rejection behaviors by hosts of the brown-headed cowbird. In absence of support for the UV-matching hypothesis, in Chapter 4 I tested the long-standing but largely untested assumption of brood parasitism that visual comparisons between eggs per se drive egg rejection behavior. To do this, I examined whether egg-nest visual contrasts contribute to egg rejection decisions in the American robin, a robust rejecter of natural cowbird parasitism. I experimentally increased/decreased parasitic egg-nest contrast in an artificial brood parasitism experiment, and predicted that foreign eggs with low visual contrast against the nest lining (i.e. were more cryptic) would be rejected more often than foreign eggs with high visual contrast against the nest lining. I employed a perceptual modeling approach that compares reflectance spectra across the avian spectral sensitivity range to assess the degree of contrast between eggs and nests. I found that egg-nest contrast did not significantly affect artificial egg ejection rates, instead artificial eggs were rejected at rates similar to those observed in non-manipulated nests. In this host-parasite system, egg rejection behavior is most likely driven by differences between eggs themselves. In Chapter 5, I show novel phylogenetic relationships of the previously unresolved endemic New Zealand Passeriformes genus Mohoua, only one species of which is an ejector host of artificial long-tailed cuckoo (Eudynamis taitensis) eggs. Because the predicted sensitivity to UV wavelengths now exists for only one Mohoua species, such well-resolved phylogenies are integral for comparative analyses that map life history traits with respect to the evolution of defenses against brood parasitism. Overall, the collection of manuscripts presented in this dissertation test specific sensory hypotheses related to the visual ecology of brood parasite hosts. Specifically, I found minimal empirical support for a major role of UV wavelengths and egg-nest visual contrasts in parasitic egg rejection among hosts of the brown-headed cowbird. Lastly, phylogenetic analysis of a largely under-studied New Zealand brood parasite-host system paves the way for novel tests of visual ecology hypothesis from a comparative perspective.

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